Incrementalism isn’t always a bad thing. Often disdainfully dismissed for being a copout behavior that preserves problematic systems by tweaking instead of overhauling them, incrementalism has its place in some negotiation situations.
This morning’s New York Times is reporting on yesterday’s drama in the Montreal climate talks. Harlan Watson, representing the Bush administration, walked out of the talks after objecting to the wording of a statement calling for long-term international cooperation to move the 1992 Kyoto Protocols forward. The Bush administration has steadfastly withstood pressure to sign onto the Kyoto accords, citing the binding limits on greenhouse gas reduction as the dealbreaking factor.
President Bill Clinton was invited to speak to the delegates and here’s the part that attracted my attention:
Mr. Clinton said that, given the impasse over global targets for emissions, countries might do better to consider specific, smaller initiatives to advance and disseminate technologies that could greatly reduce emissions in both rich and poor countries.
“If you can’t agree on a target, agree on a set of projects so everyone has something to do when they get up in the morning,” he said.
Clinton’s reminding us that when we’re stuck on a major issue in a negotiation, there’s often other work we can do that still moves the matter forward. It’s tempting, when our frustration gets the better of us or we want to use drama to force the other side’s hand, to literally or figuratively walk out.
An incrementalist headset serves us better in such moments, giving us something worthwhile to do when we get up tomorrow.