Definition: ‘Issue linkage’ refers to the simultaneous negotiation of multiple issues in the same process. Linkages can be both a helpful tool and a barrier for reaching agreement.
Benefits: When helpful, issue linkage forms the basis of quid-pro-quos where parties make concessions on issues that are of lesser importance to them in order to extract concessions from parties on issues of higher importance. Such quid-pro-quos, or package deals, can leave all parties better off and make the deal more durable. Risks: Issue linkage can be a barrier for reaching agreement when a particular issue proves unresolvable and blocks progress on other issues. When this happens, it may be preferable for parties to ‘delink’ the unresolvable issue from the agenda in order to be able to reach agreement on other issues. Barriers While issue linkage can form the basis of quid-pro-quos and package deals there are several barriers to success. Challenges include:
- Increased complexity: The addition of more issues to the agenda will tend to exponentially increase the complexity of negotiations and – accordingly – the need for information and capacity among parties and facilitators. When information and capacity are insufficient the complexity may obscure solutions and even hinder agreement.
- Issue-cycling risks: Issue linkages increase the risk that the negotiation agenda and discussions will continue to shift depending on each actor’s preferred focus. In such cases, progress on one issue can become contingent on progress on other issues, causing ‘chicken-and-egg’ situations to arise.
- Hostage-taking risks: Issue linkages can increase the risk that parties will misrepresent their preferences for tactical purposes. A party may stick to its position on an issue, even if that issue is not significant to its own interests, in order to extract concessions from partners on more important issues.