Kissinger, the global negotiator

From John F. Kennedy until recently, every U.S. president has sought the counsel of Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), along with CEOs and political leaders from around the world. His views on foreign policy, State affairs, and world order have been much discussed. However, his remarkable world record as a negotiator has largely gone unnoticed, leading James K. Sebenius, Nicholas Burns and Robert H. Mnookin to author the book Kissinger, the Negotiator. Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level. Sebenius is a professor with the Harvard Negotiation Project and wrote the book 3-d Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals.

Some negotiators prefer strategy and the big picture, whilst others focus on the emotion and empathy, and specific points. Few combine both positions. Sebenius et al. examine Kissinger’s uniquely developed ability to focus on a broader perspective. They characterise his approach as strategic, realistic, prone to change the game, and agile in multi-party situations.

Many people believe that negotiation is simply bargaining; it is not unlike a bazaar, where one person makes an extremely high offer and the counterpart keeps offering the same. Concessions are made gradually with the goal of bringing the parties to a final agreement. Kissinger characterised and criticised this standard approach to negotiation early in his career and later this was reflected in his negotiations: There is no point in moderating offers if the agreement is normally between two starting positions. Effective negotiation would propose a much more radical starting point than one is willing to accept. The more outrageous the initial offer, the clearer the idea of what one “really” wants to be considered a compromise.

Kissinger advised convincing the other side of one’s own underlying objectives and interests rather than exaggerating tactics. He argued that failure to do so hinders effective negotiation. In general negotiations, Kissinger expressed, “I made a considerable effort to leave no doubt of our fundamental approach. Only romantics think they can prevail in a negotiation by trickery: only pedants believe in the advantage of obfuscation. In a society of sovereign states, an agreement will only hold if all parties consider it in their interest. They must have  a sense of participation in the result. The art of diplomacy is not to outsmart the other side, but to convince it either of  common interest or of penalties if an impasse continues”. He continued “The wise diplomat understands that he cannot afford to trick his opponent; in the long run a reputation for reliability and fairness is an important assets. The same negotiators meet over and over again: their ability to deal with one another is undermined if a diplomat acquires a reputation of evasion or duplicity”. 

It is evident that the realist in Henry Kissinger values actions and results rather than words: “Statesmen value the steadiness and reliability in a partner, not the restless quest for even-new magic formulas”.  This brings us closer to a virtuous model, to maintain stable relationships over time, based on trust and reputation, than the Machiavellian model of short-term results.

Analysing the negotiations in which Kissinger was involved, the best contribution to more than 130 meetings between China and the United States in Warsaw was when an ambiguous and elegant formula that both parties could live with was achieved. This enabled the United States and China to cooperate on many other relevant issues. The crucial sentence is as follows:

“The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either sides of the Taiwan Straits maintain that there is but one China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.”

Just words? Hardly. There have been countless examples of such creatively ambiguous formulations of Kissinger negotiations. The common denominator is always face-saving formulations, but they result in both sides declaring victory and being able to move forward from previous deadlocks.

In some cases, however, no word of the agreement may be too costly to pronounce or formalise in writing. These are tacit agreements. However, the constructively proposed agreement may be unacceptable if enforced.  

These tacit agreements, in general, can be useful when there is a group of stakeholders, or a powerful audience, internal or external, that opposes a formal agreement and can impose costs on a negotiator who agrees to them.  Without many of the possible costs, a tacit agreement can be based on the desired content, irrespective of its form.

Constructive ambiguity and tacit agreements have a privileged place in the tactical toolkit of Kissinger, the global negotiator.

Focus on interest, not positions

The second rule of the Harvard Negotiation Method states: focus on interests, not positions. We often find ourselves in situations that become endless, where the parties argue hard about one or two variables. Each party sets its positions there, and each concession has been made after hard work. There may be more rigid or flexible negotiators, but Fisher and Ury propose that the approach of these negotiations is not the most appropriate.

The authors of Getting to Yes. How to negotiate without giving in consider that rather than focusing the negotiations on positions, it is smarter to analyse the parties’ interests and look for a solution that satisfies both parties. Human beings have diverse interests that are not usually on the surface of the terms of a negotiation. In addition, the interests of different people are multiple and diverse, which can be especially relevant in negotiations.

The same object can have a very different utility depending on each person’s interests. Although negotiations usually stay on the surface, in the discussion from positions that seem irreconcilable, reluctant to make mutual concessions. The key is to stop and analyse our interests in that negotiation and, especially, what the other party’s interests are. Here, you should pay attention to all the torrents of information we can obtain from issues that are unimportant, such as informal conversations, body language, impartial data checks, etc.

The Harvard method believes that negotiation should focus on interests, and the way to bring them out is to ask the question, “Why?” This forces each side to justify its points of view. This effort can bear fruit if, in this way, the interests underlying the positions held are ultimately appealed to. Moreover, the negotiation must focus on those interests to be an intelligent agreement.

In the second instance, Fisher and Ury propose to ask: “Why not?”. Here, the parties must justify why their choices are better than the other party’s and in what way. They must develop the convincing power of their proposals and try to show their advantages. This question also serves to explore the interests of each party.

Negotiation occurs because of common interests, although there may also be divergent ones. When undertaking a negotiation, it is essential to know the other party’s true interests. It is also relevant when making an offer to analyse what it entails for you and whether it meets your interests. Sometimes, the solution can reasonably meet the interests of both parties. But when making an offer, the need to save face with the other party must always be present. In other words, it helps to justify the final result.

If the agreements are very disproportionate, they may not be stable over time. This would mean they do not reflect to one of the interests of one of the parties.

In this Harvard Method rule, Fisher and Ury advise, “Make a list of interests”. The usual focus of negotiations is often placed on seeking concessions on one variable, usually monetary. But we lose sight of the interests, which may be diverse and may require different accommodations. It would be interesting to explore the underlying interests in the negotiations to make them explicit because, on many occasions, the shared and divergent interests may show that we are facing an interdependent decision: to get something, we need the other party, and the other party needs us to get something, often something different.

Human beings have diverse interests, and we seek to satisfy them through our life plan. Negotiations, which can be professional negotiations that also encompass everyday life, are a way to find cooperative agreements with others, and success can come from knowing how to explore mutual and divergent interests. It is a way to focus negotiations on interests and reach intelligent agreements.

Thomas More, Comfort against Tribulation

In 1534, Thomas More (1478-1535), well-known author of the work Utopia and defender of Catholic orthodoxy against Luther and other writers, was captured in the Tower of London by the Thames after refusing the oath that King Henry VIII demanded from his subjects to grant him the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England. After 14 months, on  1 July 1535, he was put on trial and sentenced to death, and executed in the morning of 6 July.

Thomas More wrote several works during those months, including A Dialogue on Comfort against Tribulation, in which he stands firm in his convictions that have led him to the Tower of London, where he has lost his position and may lose his life. It is a book that makes many religious references and can be seen as an exercise in affirmation in the face of hard times. It also provides recommendations and great wisdom, which will be analysed below with the focus of the Minerva Strategy.

“But this arrow of pride, fly it never so high in the clouds, and be the man that it carrieth up so high never so joyful thereof… yet let him remember… that be this arrow never so light, it hath yet a heavy iron head… and therefore, fly it never so high… down must it needs come and on the ground must it light… and falleth, sometimes, not in a very clean place… but the pride turneth into rebuke and shame, and there is then all the glory gone.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, II.16).

The Spanish Royal Academy of Language defines pride as “haughtiness and disordered appetite to be preferred to others”, while it can also be defined as “satisfaction and conceit by the contemplation of one’s own prerogatives with contempt for others”. Pride is a bad strategy because it can ruin interpersonal relationships, cause a lack of empathy and make it difficult to learn.

In some contexts and sectors, this human attitude is encouraged that avoids putting oneself in the other’s place and is the opposite of humility. It can be considered an obstacle to the good management of emotions and good relationships with others.

“Hard is it, Cousin, in many manner things, to bid or forbid, affirm or deny, reprove or allow, a matter nakedly proposed and put forth; or precisely to say “This thing is good,” or “This thing is naught,” without consideration of the circumstances.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, II.17).

This recalls Ortega y Gasset’s famous phrase “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (I am I and my circumstance) found in his work Meditaciones del Quijote – Meditations on the Quijote, published in 1914. The complete sentence, which is often quoted incompletely, is: “I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save her, I do not save myself”. With this phrase, Ortega means that we cannot achieve fulfillment as individuals if we do not engage with our environment and strive to improve it.

In the case of Thomas More, it refers to the level of ethics and Law, which must take into account the circumstances of the particular case. This is related to the dichotomy between universalism and particularism, as well as the importance of the possibility that general solutions can be reinterpreted according to new circumstances.

“We shall yet, Cousin, consider in these outward “goods of fortune,”  as richesse… good name… honest estimation… honorable fame, and authority— in all these things we shall, I say, consider… that either we love them and set by them as things commodious unto us for the state and condition of this present life… or else as things that we purpose by the good use thereof to make them matter of our merit, with God’s help, in the life after to come. Let us, then, first consider them as things set by and beloved for the pleasure and commodity of them for this present life.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.9).

In today’s digital age, it is possible to reinterpret the good name, honour and honourable fame. It is necessary to reconceptualise the terms private, public and intimate. However, it seems that slander, disinformation, rumors and fake news are gaining ground. The worst thing is that there seems to be no standards for verifying news and everything goes.More than ever, Philosophy is necessary

“And into this pleasant frenzy of much foolish vainglory be there some men brought sometimes by such as themselves do, in a manner, hire to flatter them, and would not be content if a man should do otherwise…but would be right angry, not only if a man told them truth when they do naught indeed… but also if they praise it but slenderly.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.10).

It is common to find professional sycophants who constantly praise everything they receive from their superiors. A minimum level of politeness and courtesy is granted to avoid ungratefulness. However, in professional contexts, it is good to be able to express critical views. If one is a boss, it is important to empower others in a positive way and never denigrate or humiliate them.

“Let us now consider in like wise what great worldly wealth ariseth unto men by great offices, rooms, and authority—to those worldly-disposed people, I say, that desire them for no better purpose” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.11)

Thomas More played significant roles in England during the reign of Henry VIII, who  chose to establish the Church of England and separate from the Catholic Church for his own benefit. Thomas More chose to remain true to his beliefs, leave his offices and disobey the sovereign. More’s hierarchy of values and the importance he places on office explain this.

“The greatest grief that is in bondage or captivity is this, as I trow: that we be forced to do such labor as with our good will we would not. But then against that grief Seneca teacheth us a good remedy: “Semper da operam ne quid invitus facias”—“Endeavor thyself evermore that thou do nothing against thy will. . . . But that thing that we see we shall needs do… let us use always… to put our good will thereto” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.18).This point is fundamental in Thomas More’s tragedy, but it can also have a significant impact in professional and personal contexts. On the one hand, extremely unjust actions can be opposed, which is a classic theme in the Philosophy of Law. Nevertheless, there are many things that we do not want to do, and paradoxically to his story, Moro advises that we put our good will to do them. It is a way to overcome tribulation.