When we analyze negotiation, we usually take the parties involved for what they say they are. But can negotiating parties pretend to be what they are not in reality? Can you think of a situation in which parties enter into multilateral negotiations not to win over, but to support some of their adversaries? All this looks possible.
We somehow assume the interests of the negotiating parties given their declarations and observable characteristics. But these assumed interests could be imitated, or faked with some strategic goals in mind. So a negotiating party is a fake when its declared goals are different from its real goals.
You could speak and act as if you were supporting a certain outcome in a negotiation, but in reality work to undermine the efforts of the parties who strive to achieve this very outcome. For example, a negotiating party can disguise as someone close by political views to its actual opponent. Or in political negotiations, a fake party may claim that, like all other negotiating parties, its goal is to win as many seats in the parliament as possible or some other elected office. But in reality, this fake party may only seek to prevent other parties from assuming that office, so the fake party only imitates its electoral ambition.
For a fake party to exist, there needs to be a “paymaster” – someone who benefits from the actions of a fake party in negotiations. The paymaster may be a party involved in negotiation or someone who is not negotiating, but has a stake in the outcome of negotiations. The fake actor himself may derive some benefit from his own actions in addition to what the paymaster has to offer. For example, he can get hold of a certain niche in the political arena that someone whom such actor serves would be willing to grant to this actor.
One may note a certain similarity between faking the identity of a political actor and espionage. Indeed, intelligence services practice the planting of moles or saboteurs, that is, agents with disguised identity. However, there is a clear difference in the methods used by fake negotiators and undercover spies to win trust among the necessary audience. At a certain moment, spies have to begin behaving “strangely” or unusually in order, for example, to recruit an agent or perform an act of sabotage. As a result, spies take big risks. Fake negotiators are not required to behave “strangely,” they just negotiate although they do have hidden agendas. As a result, they enjoy more freedom of maneuver and flexibility and do not so much get exposed to the risks of revealing the nature of their mission.
The faking of a political actor is also different from buying political support. You can offer a political party or an individual politician payments or other benefits in exchange for a service – for example, a vote on a particular bill. But this service does not require the faking of political identity. Moreover, it only concerns the behavior of a “bribed” political actor at the level where this actor interacts with other politicians or parties. The logic of political service for a fee is that the position of the “bribed” actor in relation to its voters can be jeopardized as a result of the deal. In contrast to that, the task of a fake political actor is to target the voting public rather than to capitalize on its support.
Why fake an identity?
The topic of insincere negotiators is indeed broad, so let us focus on political negotiation and see why one would choose to fake identity in a political negotiation. At least three rationales are imaginable.
First, a fake party can be created and promoted within a political system in order to “test the ground” — estimate public attitudes towards particular policies or proposals without undertaking a commitment on the part of the paymaster. How much support alternative ideas would have, how these ideas match up to those espoused by the paymaster of the fake actor? In a closed political system where free avenues of expression are few and the tradition of public discussion is limited, receiving feedback from the public may require imitation of political competition and debate. For example, a president in an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian system may choose to initiate a political party or a movement whose platform would be built around ideas that the president or his political allies would like to test. Such ideas can include, for instance, the scrapping of social welfare that has become too costly to sustain. If such unpopular measures have to be undertaken, the president may split the responsibility for them with a fake party. This fake party will divert and absorb at least some criticism from the president who stands behind them.
Second, a paymaster may charge a fake actor with undermining cohesion of an adversary’s camp or coalition in multilateral negotiations. If identity is faked credibly, a fake political party can prevent mobilization of the voters of other parties. Once a position for the fake party is secured within the political system, this fake actor can begin negotiating coalitions with other parties thereby undermining the unity of the whole wing of forces to which the fake movement is planted. Or it can seed discord within the bloc that it penetrated without having to engage in very unusual behavior. If there is a close race in a first-past-the-post political system, a third candidate can help one of the main candidates by chipping off even a small fraction of the vote.
Finally, in some cases, the paymaster may be interested in the mere existence of a political actor with a particular identity. This may satisfy public demand for such a party or movement and at the same time allow the paymaster to keep its actions under control. A fake party may be created to enrich the range of choices within a political system and make it look more pluralist.
On the political scene, a fake actor need not necessarily be a political party or movement. A think tank or a polling agency, at least for some time, can fake impartiality and disseminate biased analyses or polling results “tweaked” according to the preferences of the paymaster. For example, the public can thus be convinced to accept a ballot count fraud – as long as this fraudulent outcome was predicted by supposedly independent pollsters.
Challenges to faking
Indeed, the fake actor technique has many problems and limitations in politics and elsewhere.
It may take plenty of time for a political actor to establish itself in the political arena. The trust of the constituencies a fake actor needs to win does not come overnight. However, during political transition periods, for example, the public is desperately searching for new political leaders. In the time of flux – when the need for political fake may be highest – faking a political identity may not require too much time.
Second, it is difficult to maintain a credible, but fake identity over a long period of time. The cost of behaving even slightly differently from the expected mainstream in your group rises with time for the fake actor. You do not get away easily, for example, with criticizing your allies whom it is your mission to discredit.
Third, there is the possibility that a fake actor would, at a certain point in political negotiation, turn around and choose to become a genuine political actor. In that case, his fake identity will become a true one. At the end of the day, this may offer more benefits than working on behalf of a paymaster whose interest in its own creation may gradually decrease. It is possible to imagine that many of the established parties and movements, especially in the political systems that underwent democratic transition, were once fake and acting on behalf of a certain paymaster who intentionally or accidentally lost control over them.
Finally, while fake can become real, sincere political actors can at times appear as fake. This can happen because they make mistakes, that produce an impression of hidden agendas, and also because some observers and inclined to see politics through the conspiracy lens. It is difficult to collect verifiable data and prove the facts of faking in politics. The real identity and plots of fake actors are rarely exposed.
The phenomenon of fake political parties requires a political regime that can “orchestrate things." These are usually populist, authoritarian regimes or other closed or semi-open political systems where the public wields certain electoral rights, but it still lacks experience to be able to tell fake from real.
Populist leaders cannot openly court discrete constituencies because that may cost such leader support among other social groups. In such cases, a fake political party becomes a useful proxy tool of appealing to specific constituencies. An authoritarian leader may choose not to make the case for a certain policy move to avoid the impression that this move is being imposed without due consideration and discussion. It may be therefore useful for an authoritarian leader to rely on fake actors, i.e. experts, to create an impression of an independent presentation of his/her agenda. The bottom line is that when studying closed or semi-open political systems and societies, we should be careful not to take actors within them for granted when we negotiate with them.
This comment is derived from a talk delivered at the Processes of International Negotiation Roadshow, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, November 1, 2012. This comment is also available on LiveJournal.