WALDORF-ASTORIA, NEW YORK | As Aaron [Miller] has said, he and I (and others) spent many years working together on Mid-East peace.
I’m delighted, Aaron, that you’ve found a home where you can put your very able and talented experience and passion for peace to such good use. The efforts of Seeds of Peace support a goal I know we all share—a world that is safer because it is more peaceful.
That mission recalls the words of Elie Wiesel, the Hungarian writer and Holocaust survivor. “Mankind,” he wrote, “must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures; peace is our gift to each other.” I have been asked to speak to you today about negotiations. And to begin at the beginning, let me say a word or two about what I think it takes to be a good negotiator.
Over the decades, experience has taught me that successful negotiations more often come to those who are well-honed through years of hard work at developing this special craft. That is important because, as you would expect, bad negotiators produce bad negotiations.
As I moved from the world of law and business to the world of public service, I was struck not so much by their differences as by their similarities. The politics of success in the boardroom and the courtroom, and the politics of success in government, whether domestically or internationally, may not be exactly the same. But, it is still politics.
My old friend, George Bush, President No. 41 as we call him, taught me that there are two kinds of politicians. One, he said, is like a Dalmatian who grows up in the fire house. From the time he’s a puppy, every time the bell rings, he runs. But that President Bush 41 and I were the other kind. Both of us served in the military, then worked for a living. He founded a successful oil company before he ran for Congress in the 1960s. I worked as a lawyer before joining the executive branch of government in 1975.
When I speak to young people who are interested in politics, I encourage them to do what 41 and I did: First, get a life! Get a job. Start a family. One reason for this advice is personal. I think you’ll be a happier and more productive human being if you put family and profession ahead of politics. But another reason (with many, many honorable exceptions) is that our country is better governed, I think, by people who have earned a paycheck in the private sector.
In my case, everything I did in public life was based in part on the experiences I got while serving for 18 years as a business lawyer in my hometown of Houston, Texas. In all my government posts (whether dealing with my fellow executive branch officers, with members of Congress, or with foreign diplomats and heads of government) I always enjoyed negotiating, maybe because I had spent so many years doing just that for my law firm’s clients. Along the way, I have found that there are a half-dozen building blocks that, when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work, can be used to develop good negotiations—whether you’re negotiating for a client in the private sector or for your country, whether you’re negotiating a merger of two companies, or negotiating peace.
First and foremost among those building blocks is the ability to understand an opponent’s position. I would have to say that if there was one key to whatever success I’ve enjoyed in negotiating in the public and private sectors, it has been an ability to crawl into the other guy’s shoes. If you understand your opponent, you have a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion. That means paying attention to how they view issues and appreciating the political constraints they face.
This approach was important when, as Secretary of State to the first President Bush, we confronted the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Empire. No great power wants to relinquish its supremacy. No leaders like to see themselves humiliated on the world stage. We therefore did all we could to avoid “triumphalism”—public crowing over the defeat of communism and the implosion of the Soviet Union. I believe that our attention to Moscow’s sensitivities was a major reason the Cold War ended with a whimper, not a bang.
That period in American diplomacy also illustrates a second building block of good negotiations—building trust through personal relationships. I am talking about the type of trust that transcends written documents and treaties. Of course, you never sacrifice principles or your country’s national interest in order to acquire a trusting relationship with your interlocutor. But, building trust at the personal level greatly enhances the chances of successful negotiations.
For example, over the years, I developed a close affinity with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze. During moments together in foreign capitals or on a Wyoming ranch, we nurtured a unique relationship that helped us steer the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. Though he was an adversary, he also became a close friend. I found I could trust him and we were able to do things that benefited both our countries. When both sides trust each other, even the most contentious talks can succeed. The negotiators can relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They can talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. This doesn’t guarantee success, but it sure improves the odds. And it leaves both parties in a better position to try again later if they are not initially successful.
But sometimes, building trust needs a little help, or a kick-start. As a business lawyer, I learned that the best way to think about a big negotiation was as a series of small negotiations. It was always important to start with an issue that could be resolved quickly, reasonably, and amicably. Finding a common point of agreement—even a minor one, like the shape of the negotiating table—can help set the tone of the relationship. It also helps develop a dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations.
Ambassador Max Kampelman, one of our arms-control negotiators, had it right when he said that “A dialogue is more than two monologues.” The longer you can keep the sides talking with one another—instead of delivering sermons at one another—the better are the chances that a middle ground can be reached. I like to call this third building block of negotiating “parallel reciprocal confidence building.” It is a method of confidence building that keeps the parties talking. It shows both sides they can negotiate.
In 1991, when I was trying to get Israel and her Arab neighbors to meet in Madrid for peace talks, I would ask the two sides to consider modest confidence-building measures. At the time, direct talks between the two sides had been almost taboo. Building trust was a difficult challenge. But once the two sides learned to take small steps in unison, they moved to larger and larger ones. And that confidence building led to the first ever face-to-face negotiations in Madrid between long-time adversaries.
Another building block I learned through personal experience is what I call “principled pragmatism”—the art of the possible without the sacrifice of principle. Negotiation, almost by definition, is the act of compromise. But no compromise should be taken to the extreme of sacrificing core principles. In fact, I would argue that success in politics requires principled pragmatism.
From 1981 to 1985, I served as President Reagan’s White House chief of staff. These were the years of tax reduction, economic deregulation, rebuilding our defense capabilities and Social Security reform. Working with Congress to achieve these goals was part of my job description. In this regard, compromises were needed and compromises were made, often over the objections of some of the President’s more ideological supporters. But those compromises were made by the Gipper himself, who told me many times, “Jim, I would rather get a substantial part of what I want than to go over the cliff with my flag flying.” It is a lesson I applied again and again in my public career: “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”
The fifth building block for good negotiations is timing. It is the diplomatic art of recognizing when to press a point and when to withdraw. Like a good poker player, you have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. In 1991, the international developments provided good timing for creating better relationships between the Jewish and Arab worlds. Remember, the collapse of communism was proceeding across the globe. That phenomenon, coupled with the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, created a new geostrategic dynamic. The timing was right to try to bring Israel and her Arab neighbors to the bargaining table for the first time ever. On the other hand, bad timing can undermine negotiations.
During the past 12 years, two potentially important moments in negotiations between Israel and the Arabs failed because the timing was wrong. Our efforts in 1992 to get Arab leaders to meet with Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin in a Washington summit probably came too soon after the Madrid Conference, and too late in President Bush’s term. Similarly, the 2000 Camp David talks between President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat came too late in the president’s term, and at a time when Barak and Arafat were not strong enough politically at home.
The final building block of successful negotiations is a deep respect for politics. We all know that the Prussian military philosopher Clausewitz said war is the continuation of politics by other means. I would argue (and I did in the book I wrote about my years as Secretary of State) that diplomacy is the continuation of “politics”—whether in revolution, war, or peace. In a broader sense, governance itself is a continuation of politics. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to say you admire the American system of government but detest the politics. They are inextricably linked, like the roots and branches of a tree.
But by “politics” here, I refer to two things. One is the noble art and science of winning election to public office. It’s hard to argue with J. William Fulbright, who stated the obvious: “To be a statesman, you must first get elected.” “Politics” in the second sense is what occurs between elections, the process of turning ideas into policies. In other words, “governing.” It is only through politics (in this second sense) that we can transform political philosophy into policy. But an elected official can transform his ideas into policy only to the extent that he has power. And power in our system ultimately derives from public support—as expressed in the last election, and as it will be expressed again in the next one, and as it is reflected in the meantime by shifts in public opinion. A public official who loses public confidence also loses power. A public official who husbands that resource and uses it wisely can change the direction of history.
My point is that “politics” enters into every policy decision that a president or other public official makes. And that is both necessary and good. In building my team at the State Department, I looked for certain characteristics—loyalty, leadership, and a willingness to work as a team.
Aaron, I’m proud to say, fit the bill on all counts.
I also looked for people with good political sense. Why? Because, quite simply, politics drives diplomacy, not vice versa. The difference between success and failure is often measured by the ability to understand how political constraints shape the outcome of any negotiation. When negotiating on behalf of the United States, one must never forget that most foreign leaders are themselves politicians. They view their problems, and their opportunities, through political eyes. To persuade them, as I mentioned earlier, it is often helpful to put oneself in their shoes—to determine how to help them explain, justify, or even rationalize positions back home. Foreign political leaders respect American diplomats who can work the domestic side of U.S. politics in order to deliver on international commitments. This approach helped us build the Gulf War coalition that ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. Effective U.S. leadership depended on our ability to persuade others to join with us. That required us to appreciate what objectives, arguments, and trade-offs were important to our would-be partners.
So these are six building blocks that can lead to successful negotiations:
- Understanding an opponent’s position.
- Gaining trust through personal relationships.
- Reciprocal confidence building.
- Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles.
- Being aware of timing.
- Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.
Of course, the building blocks are only as good as the negotiating tools used to put them in place.
Quickly, I would like to discuss three tools that have served me well.
The first is, perhaps, the Golden Rule of negotiating: Never lie. Misunderstandings and miscommunications are inevitable. But they can be overcome with solid dialogue. Lies, however, break trust between the sides, and trust is vital to negotiations.
The second is the ground rule that “nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.” This is a simple negotiating rule that prevents both sides from claiming that one or more disputed items were resolved and trying to pocket them, even though the entire problem was not resolved. This rule is essential to avoid misunderstandings.
The third is to keep a written record of all discussions. This prevents parties from having to rely on their memories, which can fail after long hours of talks.
In the United States, we are fortunate that our forefathers’ hard work has left us in the best negotiating position—one of strength. That strength must be appreciated and guarded if this country wants to remain the world’s leader. One element of our strength is our unequaled military capability, which gives us the capacity to responsibly project power anywhere in the world.
Another is economic might. Historically, I believe that is an element that American diplomats too eagerly compromise. As one of two people privileged to serve as Secretary of the State and Secretary of the Treasury, I have a special perspective on this. American policy makers in the past have sometimes bargained away economic chits for foreign-policy gains. Such actions betray a lack of understanding that our country’s political, diplomatic and military strengths are indelibly linked to its economic vitality.
Another element of the strength of the United States is the stability of our political system. We see evidence of this in times of crisis, when people put their money in dollar-denominated assets.
A final secret of America’s success, I think, is the way our Founders institutionalized the political process. This is ironic, in a way, because they expressed a strong fear of what they referred to as “factions.” But they also deliberately designed our government as a competing set of institutions—executive, legislative, and judicial. The genius of this system is that the working out of policies requires a great deal of cooperation, compromise, public support, and leadership. That, in turn, requires constant negotiation.
The system is not perfect, and yes, democracy is messy. But, as Churchill said, it’s still better than all the alternatives. The international system is not so well-ordered, institutionally, but as I learned when I served as Secretary of State, it too is driven by politics. The bottom line is the same. Both at home and abroad, our peace, prosperity, and liberty are created, preserved, and defined by the art of politics. And I count myself very blessed for having had the opportunity to practice that art on behalf of this wonderful country of ours.