Coping With Conflict

With a few phone calls and letters and an overseas jaunt now and then, a Harvard professor lets world leaders know how to solve their problems--and sometimes they take the advice.

Roger D. Fisher '43 is one of those rare professors who aggressively practices what he preaches.

Fisher, Williston Professor of Law at the Law School, is the founder of Social Sciences 174, "Coping with International Conflict," and for over 30 years he has been doing just that. He has been involved in trying to help settle disputes between Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the United States and Denmark--and his most recent efforts have been directed toward solving the Middle East conflict. He has been advising both the Egyptians and the Israelis about how to move negotiations forward.

On the one hand, Fisher has been offering suggestions to his former student at the Law School, Osama el-Baz, who was the number-two negotiator for the Egyptians in the recent Cairo peace talks and a participant in the Jerusalem talks.

On the other hand, Fisher has had the ear of the director - general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Ephraim Evron, who is rumored to be a leading candidate to be the next Israeli ambassador to the U.S.


And third, Fisher has been in touch with the State Department and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), suggesting possible ways to break the deadlock in the Mideast settlement.

One major problem in the current round of peace talks is the difference in negotiating styles of Egypt's Anwar el-Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin, Fisher says. "Sadat says 'Let's agree now and negotiate later. Let's get married.' But Begin is a Philadelphia lawyer, he wants to see the details before he agrees to peace. Begin says 'I wouldn't marry you if you were the last guy on earth. You are ugly. Of course, this is my opening position and I'm willing to negotiate.'"

Although the PLO is excluded from the current round of peace talks, Fisher says, "In the long run there is no alternative to the PLO. Is is the only group that can claim to speak for all the Palestinians." Based on private discussions he has had with PLO members, Fisher says he believes the PLO "is prepared to seek peace with Israel in return for direct U.S. talks with them." So he has been urging the State Department to try to establish face-to-face discussions between Israel and the PLO. "The sooner we start domesticating the PLO, the better," he says.

Sea, Salt and Ireland

Besides working on the Mideast problem, Fisher has been advising the present U.S. representatives to the International Conference on the Law of the Sea, and the present U.S. negotiators in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Through letters and telephone calls he has been helping a group of Catholic and Protestant educators in Northern Ireland develop a history text presenting each side's interpretation of events in that nation.

He also plans to testify soon before a Senate Intelligence subcommittee on legislative means to prevent further CIA abuses of power. A draft bill on this subject has already been written, but Fisher says the bill will undergo radical changes before it is finished.

This attitude of attempting to cope actively with conflicts is what Fisher says he hopes to teach his students in Soc Sci 174, a course sporting a hefty 72-page reading list and syllabus. Most of those pages contain detailed explanations of what students are expected to learn about particular diplomatic and conflict-solving techniques, such as breaking conflicts into bite-sized pieces, and making it easier for the other guy to do what you want him to. Soc Sci 174 is supposed to help bridge the gap between the theory and practice of international conflict-solving by teaching students diplomatic skills, and then having them apply these skills to actual international problems.

Basically, Fisher's theory of conflict solving is the following:

(1)Select a problem--Choose a conflict to work on.

(2)Try to see the problem as those involved do--All conflicts involve at least two sides who cannot agree on what to do. Try to understand how each side views the situation and why.