James Sebenius is co-author of “Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons From Dealmaking at the Highest Level”

Interview – Part I

Interview – Part II

Interview – Part III

Read the Transcript


On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we explore how President Nixon’s national security advisor, and later secretary of state Dr. Henry Kissinger crafted and executed negotiating strategies with leaders of foreign countries.

This three part interview was conducted with James Sebenius, the Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. You can follow the school’s work on Twitter @harvardhbs. Professor Sebenius specializes in analyzing and advising on complex negotiations. In 1982, he co-founded, and still directs the Negotiation Roundtable at Harvard Law school. In 1994, he spearheaded the Business School’s decision to make negotiation a required course in the MBA program, and create a negotiation unit which he headed for several years. He is the founder and principal of Lax Sebenius: The Negotiation Group LLC.

He and his Harvard colleagues, R. Nicholas Burns, former diplomat and professor at the Kennedy School of Government, and Robert Mnookin, attorney and professor at the Law School, are the co-authors of a new book, “Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level.”

Origins of “Kissinger the Negotiator”

In this interview, James Sebenius remarked that he’s read everything he could on Dr. Kissinger — an approximate count of 6,000 pages. He and his colleagues interviewed succeeding secretaries of state on negotiation — including James Baker, Madeline Albright, and George Shultz. During the interview with Shultz, he referred the authors to a small book he had written called, “The Ten Commandments of Negotiation.” They then asked Kissinger if he had developed a set of his own rules on negotiation. These conversations inspired Sebenius to write an essay on Kissinger’s commandments of negotiation. After some deliberation, and collaboration with the subject and the co-authors, the final product was published in May 2018 by Harper Collins.

Defining Negotiation

Merriam Webster defines negotiating: “to confer with another so as to arrive at a settlement for some matter.” For the purposes of this discussion, it is defined as “the deal making aspect of foreign policy, specifically moves that are made at the table, and away from table that are collectively designed to elicit a ‘yes’ they are looking for, and to get a target deal actually done.” Tactfully it means building relationships, being persuasive, understanding the other side’s interests, as well as shaping incentives, and penalties.

Why Look at the Nixon-Kissinger Era of Diplomacy?

President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger presided over a challenging time in American diplomatic history, and deftly seized on opportunities presented.

By the time of Nixon’s inauguration in January 1969, America was mired in the decade long Vietnam War. Nixon and Kissinger’s aim was to negotiate in a way that ended the war, and achieve a favorable peace that allowed for the strength and sustainability of the government and society of South Vietnam.

The two also wanted to restore America’s credibility around the globe, and engage the world’s great powers — namely the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China — with the core objective of gaining strategic advantage in the Cold War.

Crafting a Negotiation Strategy

The first principle Sebenius discussed is “crafting a negotiation strategy.” This is exemplified in a lesser known case study of diplomacy in Southern Africa.

In 1974, the Ford administration was concerned with the growing Soviet influence in Angola, where 20,000 Cuban troops had been deployed. In neighboring Rhodesia, a white minority led by Prime Minister Ian Smith, ruled a black majority that out numbered whites six to one. Concerned that Communist forces would exploit this injustice and political imbalance, Kissinger’s objective was to convince Smith to abdicate power, and transition to majority rule.

The negotiation strategy was crafted in a multilateral approach. Kissinger embarked on a campaign involving an alliance of frontline white-ruled states in Southern Africa — among them South Africa — to persuade Rhodesia to accept this change. In two years, Prime Minister Smith went on television, and announced his intention to abdicate. It was a major diplomatic achievement. Not only had it staved off increasing Soviet incidence in the region, but it had averted a potential race war.

Zooming Out

An integral part of a negotiation strategy is the ability to zoom out from negotiations with counterparts, and see larger objectives and broader context on how parties, issues, and regions might be effected over time, rather than treating each negotiation on their independent merits.

Sebenius uses Kissinger’s diplomatic actions in the Middle East as a case study. Since the beginning of the first Nixon administration, Nixon and Kissinger aimed to reduce Soviet influence in the region. Triangular diplomacy with the People’s Republic of China put increased pressure on Moscow, and allowed the U.S. to take greater risks.

By the time war broke out between Israel, and Egypt and Syria in 1973, the United States was in a prime position to confer its prestige on the diplomatic process. While the Soviet Union could act as disruptors in the region, the U.S. would be the suitor that would ultimately allow the Arab States to attain their objectives. By 1974, disengagements were accorded, and at the end of the decade, relations between Egypt and Israel had been normalized, and Israel had returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

Philosophies of Negotiation and the Deal/No Deal Balance

Sebenius outlines three general types of negotiations in Kissinger’s view: “Theologians,” “Psychiatrists,” and “Realists.”

Theologians represent the most hawkish view, that one can never negotiate with evil, and that threat of force should principally be used when negotiating.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the psychiatrists, who believe that negotiations should never be coercive, and discussions should be used in part to clear up misunderstandings between two parties.

Kissinger identifies with the middle of the spectrum as a realist — that is an actor who believes that each side has interests, and that there maybe agreements that can be reached, rather than have no deal at all. Every realist negotiator uses the “Deal/No Deal Balance” as a crucial indicator. A case study Sebenius uses is the disengagement agreement between the Israelis and the Jordanians over disputed territory in the West Bank. Kissinger’s initial plan was to negotiate with Jordan, but after the Arab league declared the Palestinian Leadership Organization the sole representative of the Palestinian people, he opted for the no-deal option as an agreement with Jordan could have had grave implications.

Zooming In

In negotiation, Sebenius notes that Kissinger strongly believed in understanding and reading his counterparts in light of their cultural and political contexts, as well as individually.

While the Chinese might have held a unique philosophy about diplomacy with foreign leaders, Chairman Mao Ze Dong and Premier Zhou En Lai were very distinct in their temperaments. Mao tended to talk in broad strokes and was the visionary; Chou Enlai,while also strategic, was much more of an administrator and executor.

Kissinger acknowledged the failure to establish an understanding of his counterparts in negotiations with the Japanese. The country’s prime minister is a product of consensus within a parliamentary system, whereas in a presidential system — which Kissinger was accustom to dealing — the leaders hold exceptional and broader power to negotiate.

Constructive Ambiguity

Kissinger was keen on crafting diplomatic language to reach his objectives — this was particularly true in cases where he needed to break an impasse. One such clever method of word smithing is what he termed “Constructive Ambiguity” — which Sebenius defines as crafting agreements that permit people to go forward in ways they would like but can’t explicitly express because of other political considerations, often concerning domestic factors.

The use of constructive ambiguity became important on the issue of Taiwan when announcing the joint communique between the Untied States and China in February 1972. Neither the government of the People’s Republic of China, or the Republic of China (Taiwan) would acknowledge each other’s legitimacy, however the future of China cross strait relations would be wordsmithed in terms of unity among the Chinese without the U.S. actually supporting any actual claim on either side of the strait.

The Importance and Costs of Secrecy

Nixon and Kissinger held that secrecy was important in negotiations so as to insulate from potential risks including backlash from domestic politics or allies. Secret channels allowed counterparts to exert greater control over negotiations, and ultimately present their target agreement as a fait accompli. This was especially evident in Kissinger’s secret channel with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in talks over Strategic Arms Limitation, and in rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.

Secrecy did come with some high costs. It often cut out technically skilled bureaucrats in other agencies from the policy process, and offended allies who would ultimately be effected by the outcome of negotiations. Negotiators could also be blindsided by counterparts who wouldn’t honor in public what was agreed upon in private, as in the case of talks with the North Vietnamese.


From “zooming out” for a strategic approach to negotiations and “zooming in” and understanding one’s counterparts, to be willing to change the game and adapt to internal and external factors, the value of Kissinger’s lessons on negotiating cuts across several disciplines including law, public policy, diplomacy and the private sector.

“These are all things that I think carry from the diplomacy of the 1970s,” Sebenius concluded. “That’s the spirit in which we wrote this book.”

Further Reading

Kissinger, Henry. 193. Memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon. “Mao Chou and the Chinese Litmus Test.” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976. Volume XVII, China, 1969-1976.

Silverthorne, Sam. “Henry Kissinger’s Lessons for Business Negotiators.” Interview with James Sebenius. Harvard Business School. 5 July 2018.

Sebenius, James. “Henry Kissinger and Robert Mugabe: The Forgotten Connection via Remarkably Creative Negotiation.” Harvard International Review. 28 February 2018.

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Photo: Kissinger, Nixon, John H. Holdridge of the National Security Council and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1972. Credit John Dominis/Time & Life Pictures