A major theme in current Palestinian-Israeli discourse is the topic
of unilateralism. This discussion arose in part because bilateral
negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians reached a
stalemate. The recent election victories of Hamas and Kadima have
only intensified the debate because neither party has shown the
slightest interest in talking with the other about reaching a
two-state negotiated settlement. Given these realities, some form
of unilateralism appears, at least in the short-term, to be the
only option open to the parties.
Nevertheless, this assessment is not entirely pessimistic because a
strategy of coordinated unilateral action - reciprocal
unilateralism - may, in fact, be the best course of action for the
difficult period ahead.
In stark contrast to bargaining strategies that seek explicit and
formal agreements consisting of specific concessions and
compromises, reciprocal unilateralism focuses on incremental steps
in the pursuit of mutually desirable goals and intentions. While
bargaining produces treaties, reciprocal unilateralism aims at
informal arrangements that can later be codified into formal
agreements. Although reciprocal unilateralism comes in many forms,
scholarly attention has focused principally on three:
"tit-for-tat", GRIT (graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction),
and conditional reciprocity (Bunn & Holloway, 1998).
Tit-for-tat first rose to prominence with the publication of Robert
Axelrod's renowned book, The Evolution of Cooperation. Using game
theory, Axelrod demonstrates that cooperation based in reciprocity
can thrive and endure even in an environment where more
exploitative strategies are being played. The reciprocal strategy
that worked best was tit-for-tat. Tit-for-tat begins with a
cooperative move and then responds in kind to the move it receives
in return. In other words, if the opposing player replies with an
antagonistic gesture, tit-for-tat will respond in a similar manner.
In this way, tit-for-tat rewards cooperation and punishes
hostility, and this characteristic set of moves is its most
GRIT is a strategy formulated by Charles Osgood in the 1960s to
counter the escalating arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet
Union. With GRIT, one side undertakes moves whose express purpose
and principle intent is to reduce the distrust of the other side.
The other side is then invited to respond in kind, but no attempt
is made to specify exactly what this response should be. Future
concessions are not made contingent on how the other side reacts -
although the message is clearly sent that, if some appropriate
reciprocation is not forthcoming, the further moves will not be
considered. The first move by one party is followed by a reciprocal
move by the other side and a similar invitation to respond.
Ideally, this process produces a decline in tension and an increase
in trust and leads to the preconditions for successful formal
negotiations and, ultimately, an end to the conflict.
Finally, conditional reciprocity involves a prior consultation
between the parties in which initial action is made contingent on
the explicit or implicit promise of a specified response from the
other side. This approach directly addresses problems of
uncertainty by making clear what the initiator expects in return
and, thus, establishes the standard by which the other side's
response will be judged. It also counteracts the tendency for the
other side to simply "pocket" the benefits without responding with
a comparable offer.
The historical record suggests that the most successful unilateral
strategies have featured a conditional component (Bunn &
Holloway, 1998) while quantitative studies indicate that GRIT has
been more effective than tit-for-tat in establishing the
reciprocity needed to address the difficult issues surrounding a
stalemate (Goldstein and Freeman, 1990). These conclusions lead to
the tentative suggestion that conditional reciprocity and GRIT, or
perhaps some creative combination of the two strategies, offer the
best prospects for dealing with prolonged and intractable conflict.
A brief examination of the strengths and weaknesses of each
approach helps to establish the parameters within which an
innovative strategy of reciprocal unilateralism might emerge.
The strength of conditional reciprocity is that it seeks to build
upon the common interests that both parties have already
acknowledged while its chief limitation lies in its inability to
expand this initial domain of common interests beyond what the
parties have already recognized. Another shortcoming is the lack of
persuasive evidence that cooperation on critical issues will arise
solely from the principal motivation at work in conditional
reciprocity, namely each side's pursuit of its own
In contrast, GRIT may have a greater effect on changing the "enemy
images" that fuel conflict since it uses unsolicited gestures to
signal a willingness to pursue common interests to an adversary who
has heretofore seen the conflict in zero-sum terms. Nevertheless,
GRIT also has shortcomings that need to be taken into account. In
particular, the work of Lee Ross on "reactive devaluation" strongly
suggests that the mere act of offering a concession decreases its
perceived value in the eyes of the recipient (Ross, 1995; Ross
& Ward, 1995). As a result, the receiving party is apt to see
unilateral concessions recommended by GRIT as token or deceptive
and, thus, having little real significance. Moreover, one might
argue that, if the relationships required to make GRIT work were in
place, it is not entirely clear why GRIT would be needed. In other
words, it is the relationships and not GRIT per se that account for
the parties' success in working together.
Beyond these considerations lies a more fundamental issue of
whether reciprocal unilateralism can actually build the trust
needed to transform intractable conflict. While explorations of
trust often focus on whether the parties fulfill each other's
expectations, Russell Hardin (2002) maintains that trust instead
has to do with a "rational expectation about the self-interested
behavior" of the other person or party (p. 6). To say that I trust
you means that I have grounds for thinking that you will be
trustworthy (p. 1). These grounds have to do with the way that my
interests and yours are related; namely, that I think it is in your
interest to take my interests into account when you act. I trust
you to recognize this fact and act accordingly - and on that basis
I believe you are and will continue to be trustworthy. In other
words, I trust you to the extent that I believe my interests are
encapsulated within yours and that you, as a rational human being,
will therefore give appropriate weight to my interests as you
pursue your own. It should be emphasized that trust of the sort
described here is not based on the belief that we have identical or
even compatible interests (pp. 4-5). Rather, it is grounded in my
assessment that your self-interest entails making sure that my
interests are impacted in a positive way (or at least not impacted
in an overly negative way).
This notion of trust as encapsulated interest is closely related to
what my colleagues and I have called the shared futures question,
which we regard as so central to the achievement of genuine peace
as opposed to cessation of hostilities that we sometimes term it
simply the peace question (Bland 2003, 2004; Bland, Powell, &
Ross, 2006). This question challenges each party to articulate a
vision of the future that includes a place for the other that they
will judge to be minimally "bearable." In all likelihood, this
place will be less than what they sought, and it will, almost
certainly, offer less than what they feel is their just due.
Nevertheless, it is a place that offers an everyday life for one's
family and immediate community that one could live with. Unless a
place for the other is envisioned and credibly communicated, all
negotiation - as well as any other attempt to define mutual
interests with regard to particular issues - cannot be expected to
bear fruit. In other words, I must feel that a bearable future for
me is encapsulated within the future you are pursuing, and you must
feel the same about the future that I am pursuing.1 The issue of
credible communication is vitally important in this regard because
each side must believe that the other side's articulated version of
the future corresponds to their real intentions rather than to a
way station in the struggle to achieve its "real," longer-term
objectives. Parties establish their trustworthiness by
demonstrating to the other side that they will honor their
commitment to act in this manner.
To build trust, a strategy of reciprocal unilateralism - either
GRIT or conditional reciprocity, or even some imaginative
combination - must first establish the foundation for trust in the
vision of a shared future and then validate the trustworthiness of
the parties through coordinated unilateral actions. It will involve
each side proving to the other side - by deeds as well as words -
that it understands the encapsulated nature of the other side's
interests within their own, and vice versa. Independent
self-interested action that also promotes the interest of the other
side speaks for itself in a way that negotiated concessions,
encumbered tradeoffs and coercive tactics, cannot. Still, by
itself, this form of unilateral action is not enough. The parties
must further demonstrate that the encapsulated nature of their own
interests causes them to place value on the relationship itself.
Only in this way can the parties seek to expand the domain of
trustworthiness in order to deal with issues that are currently
Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York, NY:
Basic Books Inc.
Bland, B., Powell, B., & Ross, L. (2006). "Building a Peace
Constituency: The Achievement and Implementation of a Peace
Agreement in the Middle East." The Psychology of Resolving Global
Conflicts: Vol. 3 Interventions. Eds. M. Fitzduff & C. E.
Stout. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Bland, B., (2004). Beyond Cheap Talk: Fruitful Dialogue and
Building Productive Working Relationships, SCCN Working Paper,
http://www.stanford.edu/ group/sccn/Final Cheap Talk
Bland, B., (2003). Creating a Political Language for Peace:
Grass-Roots Dialogue within a Peace Process. SCCN Working Paper,
http://www.stanford.edu/ group/sccn/CD-SCCN Peace.htm.
Bunn, G. & Holloway, D. (1998). Arms Control without Treaties?
Rethinking U.S.-Russian Strategic Negotiations in Light of the
Duma-Senate Slowdown in Treaty Approval. CISAC Working Paper,
Goldstein, J. & Freeman, J. (1990). Three-Way Street: Strategic
Reciprocity in World Politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
Hardin, R. (2002) Trust and Trustworthiness. New York, NY: Russell
Osgood, C. (1962). An Alternative to War or Surrender. Urbana, IL:
University of Illinois Press.
Ross, L. (1995). "The Reactive Devaluation Barrier in Dispute
Resolution." Barriers to Conflict Resolution. Eds. K. Arrow, R.
Mnookin, L. Ross, A. Tversky, & R. Wilson. New York: Norton,
1 Although peace cannot come about unless the parties address
the shared future question to each other's satisfaction, real peace
will require more. Both sides must also feel that a shared future
is better for them than what they are likely to achieve through a
continuation of the conflict. Moreover, each side must believe that
this is true for the other side as well, or it will anticipate that
the other side will reinitiate the conflict at a time and under
circumstances of its own choosing.