Negotiation as Art*

Negotiation as Art

Being a successful negotiator means mastering an art, which requires years of practice as well as the integration of massive amounts of data. Just as there are only a very few master musicians, so there also are only a very few master negotiators.

Herb Cohen is one of them. He was dubbed “The World’s Best Negotiator” by Playboy in 1981, in part because he was responsible for the strategy, and predicted the precise timing, that resulted in the release of America’s 52 hostages from Iran in January 1981. If you were fortunate enough to attend a Herb Cohen “How to Negotiate” lecture, you can attest to the difference it made in both your professional skills and your personal life. A cornerstone of his artistry is that negotiating requires the negotiator to care about the result …, but not care all that much. A negotiator needs to stay focused on the process and, although he also needs to have clear instructions as to what is, and what is not, an acceptable outcome, outcome should take the back seat. The negotiator has to have the discretion, and be willing, to walk away from the table …, and he has to successfully and credibly communicate to the other side the lack-of-need-to-return-with-a-deal. Doing so requires, first, that the negotiator not be the final decision-maker, second, being patient and, third, keeping emotion and ego out of the negotiating process.

Cohen has worked his magic because he recognizes that negotiation is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Each side to a negotiation has a different perception of fairness, targets different goals, and comes from a different social and economic background – even if both sides share a common culture …, all of which create huge communication and expectation gulfs that require bridging. That is the job of the negotiator – to first and not last find the commonalities. That job is made more difficult when there’s a clash of religions/cultures/histories (as there currently is between America and Iran … and America and China … and Israel and the Palestinians). To be successful, a negotiator needs to put himself in the shoes, and understand the mindset, of the other side so that he can address the needs and goals sought by his adversary. He needs to appeal to the other side’s definition of fairness and grant the other side due deference and respect …, as well as graciously concede at least a portion of its goals. Focusing the negotiation on his side’s needs and goals is counterproductive and, moreover, provides an informational advantage to the other side. The goal of a successful negotiator is to persuade the other side that it has a win …, without indicating that it’s actually the win your side requires.

How a negotiation is set-up and the information flow preceding it often are as important as the negotiation process itself. Sometimes, the “set-up” and the “flow” are outcome determinative.

One example is President Nixon’s/Henry Kissinger’s “negotiations” with North Vietnam, and a different example, with a different outcome, is their negotiations with China. In Vietnam, Nixon was burdened with his re-election commitment to exit Vietnam. The North Vietnamese understood this quite well. All they needed was patience. America had made it clear that it was prepared to surrender. North Vietnam had no need to negotiate. Time was its ally. The opposite was true with respect to China.

The disadvantage of the set-up similarly plagued Secretary of State John Kerry in his 2013-15 negotiations with Iran. President Obama had made it clear that America needed a deal (among other things, he had broken protocol by telephoning Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September 2013 to emphasize his belief that a deal could/should be reached, not the optimal negotiating strategy). The message conveyed by Obama and affirmed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was that, if America was unsuccessful in derailing Iran’s nuclear program, Israel would take military action and that any such action by Israel would likely drag the U.S. into a Mideast war, an unacceptable outcome for Obama America. Obama therefore needed a deal before his term expired …, and Iran understood that. Iran waited out Kerry (Herb Cohen notes that Iran is a trading and bargaining society; there’s no such thing is Iran as “retail”) and achieved a victory favorable 2015 nuclear framework agreement.

A different mistake was made in 2000 by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s leader, Yasser Arafat. The Camp David Summit provided Arafat with the opportunity to achieve statehood. Arafat miscalculated and decided that his position would be improved if he walked away from the negotiating table – he thought that time was on his side. He was wrong. That mistake was similar to Israel’s after the 6-day War when it was in a position to dictate terms to the Palestinians and decided that it didn’t need to do so since its position could only get stronger. It too was wrong.

America invaded Afghanistan in 2001, ousted the Taliban, crushed its armed forces, and installed an American-styled government. The defeated Taliban sued for peace, but President Bush refused to talk, believing that America was in the stronger position and that the new Afghan government would endure whatever the weakened Taliban did. He was wrong. America’s advantages eroded. After Bush left office, President Obama began negotiations, again from a position of strength. He stopped when Afghanistan’s government objected …, for reasons that did not benefit America or further its interests. Candidate Trump made Obama’s failure to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan a campaign issue and promised to effect an end to America’s longest war if he was elected. After Obama left office, the Trump Administration’s representative (over the Afghan government’s strenuous objections) publicly set three pre-conditions for recommencing negotiations with the Taliban: America would consider withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban (1) agreed to a ceasefire, (2) recognized Afghanistan’s government as a negotiating partner, and (3) renounced its former alliance with al Qaeda. The Taliban reportedly agreed to renounce al Qaeda (although doing so would not have required it to take any actual action) in return for America’s withdrawal of 5,000 of its 14,000 troops within 5 months. The proposed settlement agreement did not include the other 2 requirements set by the Trump Administration in 2018. A signing ceremony between the President and a Taliban representative nevertheless was scheduled at Camp David for the weekend prior to September 11th. It was canceled after the Taliban, in what has been interpreted as a sign of contempt for America any “negotiated settlement” short of an American surrender, detonated two suicide bombs that killed 28 people, including an American soldier, and injured more than 150 others on September 2nd and 5th. The Taliban apparently believe that another signing ceremony will be scheduled in due course. They’ve read the history books. They’ve read about Vietnam. They know about American elections.

Politicians are not good negotiators. Their goal is to get re-elected, which doesn’t necessarily square with success in international negotiations. This conclusion finds further support in President Trump’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal. When he withdrew from the deal in 2018, his Administration listed 12 conditions that Iran had to comply with in order for the U.S. to lift sanctions:

  • Iran had to provide a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program, and permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran also had to provide unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to release all U.S. citizens, as well as citizens of America’s partners and allies. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to end support for terrorist groups, including Hizballah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout Syria. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and cease harboring senior al Qaeda leaders. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to end support for terrorists and militant partners around the world. IT HASN’T DONE SO.
  • Iran had to end its threats to destroy Israel, cease firing missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and end its threats to international shipping and destructive cyberattacks. IT HASN’T DONE SO.

On August 26th, Trump reduced his 12 conditions to … 3: “We’re looking for: no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time. Very simple, we can have it done in a very short period of time.” On September 11th, Bloomberg reported that the Trump Administration is preparing for the President to meet with Iranian President Rouhani in New York when he attends the U.N. General Assembly meetings, a move that would break with more than 40 years of U.S. policy towards Iran. The Iranians, however, have stated that they will not negotiate with America while America’s sanctions remain in place. They may justifiably believe that time is on their side: Trump is now negotiating with himself … and his latest proposals sound startlingly similar to Obama’s framework agreement.

Although President Trump has used threats, chaos and conflicting statements as his negotiating strategy in his dealings with North Korea, Russia, China, Venezuela, Turkey, the EU and now Iran, it’s difficult to see how backing off from all 12 of the original Iranian conditions and then meeting with senior Iranian officials will further American interests. Perhaps the Administration should hire Herb Cohen?

Finally (from a good friend)

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

No Comments

Post A Comment