Transcript: James Sebenius on Henry Kissinger as Negotiator
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
Jonathan Movroydis: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for another edition of the Nixon Now Podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation, and we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. We’re joined today by James Sebenius Sebenius, co-author of “Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level.”
Sebenius is the Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration and directs the Harvard Negotiation Project. You can follow the work of Harvard Business School on Twitter at @harvardhbs. James Sebenius, thank you very much for joining us today.
James Sebenius: My pleasure.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, Nixon and Kissinger really changed the world during a period of… you know, at the height of the Cold War. And this book really goes into how Henry Kissinger in particular crafted a negotiation strategy and implemented it in various parts of the world where the United States had an interest. Just to start off, why did you decide to undertake this project?
James Sebenius: My entire career whether in the private sector or briefly in the Commerce and State Department a number of years ago, has been on different kinds of negotiation especially complex deal making. One initiative that I’ve chaired for the last now 18 years is something we call Great Negotiators. And that’s a joint venture of the program on negotiation which is Harvard-based, but also with MIT, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts and otherwise.
Each year we choose a man or woman from around the world who’s done remarkable negotiations, write case studies, bring them to Harvard, and right off start asking them, “What was your most challenging negotiation? How did you handle it? What did you learn? What might you have done differently? How would you advise somebody in a similar situation?” and so on.
And these people have just been remarkable. A number of years ago we interviewed James Baker, former Secretary of State, about some of his most challenging negotiations. And of course, he’d been a deal guy in the oil and gas industry in Houston. But when he was 40, he moved into the government, managed presidential campaigns. But as a negotiator was instrumental in unifying Germany within NATO, putting the Gulf War coalition to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and the Madrid Conference between Arabs and Israelis and so on.
I mentioned Baker as one of our great negotiators because that led two of my colleagues and myself. Nick Burns, a long time former diplomat, now a Professor of Practice at the Kennedy School, and Bob Mnookin, Law School Professor in the program on negotiation, led the three of us to say, “What about if we were to interview all the former secretaries of state, the U.S. secretaries of state, about their most challenging negotiations?”
And so we have done that, starting with Henry Kissinger, and then George Shultz, Baker of course, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Hillary Clinton, and were on tap for John Kerry and we hope Rex Tillerson before long. In any case, I give you this background because when we interviewed Henry Kissinger, the preparation was pretty intensive. Jim Baker, I had to read about 400 pages of his memoirs, and of course we talked to people and studied.
For Kissinger, I think I read about 6,000 pages, and I found myself really impressed with kind of the savvy that was there. And then if you put yourself in one of the kind of ornate classrooms at the Harvard Law School, this was Kissinger’s first time in a Harvard classroom in 45 years since he had left the university and gone on to be National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. It was an emotional kind of homecoming to have this, you know, 300 or 400 students asking many times hard questions after we’d interviewed him.
And the president of Harvard at the celebratory dinner afterwards talked about then 92-year old rock star. But the thing that struck me and some of my most deal-making and negotiation savvy colleagues, was the sophistication with which Dr. Kissinger thought about and carried and reasoned about and obviously had carried out really challenging negotiations. And that really set me to thinking about it, the combination of reading and then interviewing. George Schultz had… when we visited him referred us to a small book of his called “The Ten Commandments of Negotiation.”
And I asked towards the end of our first interviews with Henry Kissinger, “You know, Dr. Kissinger, if you were to write the equivalent of this Ten Commandments that George Schultz had given us, what would be a few of them on your list?” He kind of paused and told us that he had some… you know, given us some insights in the discussion thus far. But really said, “I don’t think my… you know, first of all, I don’t know that I could particularly use George Schultz’s approach and I know you’ve had Jim Baker here, and what I do know is you do not wanna get between Jim Baker and a concrete negotiating objective you’ll get run over.”
“But I think my approach is just too contingent, too dependent on the situation due to idiosyncrasies of personalities and so forth. And so I’m not sure it can be reduced to a series of principles or otherwise except kind of the obvious ones like credibility matters and stuff.” Anyway, I found myself thinking about it afterwards and disagreeing with him in the sense that I discerned a really clear pattern. And I wrote a long essay kind of imagining that I were Kissinger’s ghostwriter, and were writing a short book of his commandments of negotiation.
And it’s about a 10,000 or 12,000-word essay which I sent to him in New York after our interviews. And we got in touch and he said, “You know, I’ve never really thought about it this way because I have, you know, one negotiates and I have views on it, but really the broader policy in geopolitical aspects were my main focus and what I wrote about in general. But this is really interesting. Why don’t you come to New York and we’ll talk about it?”
Anyway, it’s a long answer but that’s the genesis of this book, which I imagined initially to be a very short thing. And the deeper we dug, the more interesting it became, and the results with my two colleagues as co-authors is this “Kissinger the Negotiator,” which tells an historical story and uses historical case examples which we can go into if you like, but it’s really about what one can learn to be effective in challenging complex negotiations, whether in business, or finance, or obviously in diplomatic settings. So its objective is not so much history and kind of what actually happened, though that’s necessary to understand what’s going on. But the way this story is traditionally been told is, you know, the strategies in geopolitics are in the foreground and negotiation just kind of happens.
And we’ve inverted that and had the background as kind of the history and the policy in the context, and the negotiation is in the foreground, and that’s what we could see. So I didn’t ever expect to write this book, but we became intrigued and I must say deeply, deeply impressed in that. And it compares with, you know, deep study and working with lots of the world’s best negotiators both in my academic and non-academic career. So it’s been a pleasure plus something of a seat at history.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, how does your book define negotiation?
James Sebenius: It defines it in broad terms. In fact, you can’t take an airplane flight without seeing some unsmiling character offering to, you know, help you through negotiation, get yours and most of theirs too. And it’s primarily seen as tactics at the table and, of course, that’s a critical part of the negotiation. But we tend to think of negotiation in broader terms as the sort of deal-making aspect of foreign policy, the move that one makes away from the table as well as at the table that are collectively designed to elicit the yes that you’re seeking for, to get the target deal actually done.
So these are, you know, certainly building relationships and being persuasive, it’s understanding the other side’s interests, and constraints, and constituencies, and so forth. But it’s also shaping the incentives and the penalties, and the set of players that will be directly and indirectly involved so that when you’re actually at the table you’ve got the best chance of realizing the deal that you’ve got in mind, so it’s a broad conception. Many people think quite narrowly about the tactical and interpersonal piece, that’s vital, but the great negotiators that we’ve studied, and certainly Henry Kissinger, think in broader terms that I’ve just described.
Jonathan Movroydis: So, moving to Nixon and Kissinger, what are the challenges that they faced? Why are they so unique for those who wanna study negotiation?
James Sebenius: I think of course the history is fascinating, and there are many people who studied that and it’s intriguing. I think the challenges that they faced coming into office, having been elected in 1968, the U.S. was at the height of the Vietnam War, which was really sucking the oxygen out of pretty much everything else that was going on. It was a hot war at which 30 something thousand Americans, and countless hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had died. The effort to deal with Vietnam had taken down Lyndon Johnson who didn’t choose to run for a second term.
And we were in the middle of a Cold War with the then Soviet Union, you know, and implicitly China with which we had no diplomatic relations or meaningful official communication for practically 20 years. And so it was a time when doing these things… you know, we now think of a polarized and divided United States. But when you think back to a time, you know, with riots and campus demonstrations almost daily, and Congress passing resolutions to withdraw from Vietnam immediately, and deep international criticism of the U.S. it was a real mess.
And in that sense a great challenge to find… you know, to do what it was that I think characterized Nixon and Kissinger’s core objectives, which were to manage the tensions between particularly the Soviet Union and the United States, to manage them and keep them from escalating and do so in a way that was to U.S advantage.
And probably animating Kissinger most fundamentally was reducing the non-inconsiderable risk of nuclear war. And I think those were the overarching objectives, and they were challenging in… you know, with Vietnam as the hot war, with the Cold War in sort of full swing, and domestic turmoil. So, you know, in going into writing this I had not really focused on those things, but when I look to the level of partisanship and contention in the U.S. right now, it’s hard not to draw parallels to trying to do important negotiations in the midst of, you know, deep divisions.
Jonathan Movroydis: You divide your book into three separate sections or three parts. The first part deals with crafting and negotiation strategy and executing it. And the second part deals with zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. And the third part deals with zooming in, reading your counterparts and developing relationships and rapport with your counterpart. Let’s start with the crafting a negotiation strategy. You begin with somewhat of an obscure episode in the history of Kissinger’s diplomacy towards the end of the Ford administration.
His work to negotiate an end to minority all white rule in Rhodesia, and what’s ironic about this is that Kissinger did this through multilateral negotiations with other white-ruled entities. Can you give us the context for this episode in Cold War history, and how Kissinger crafted a negotiation strategy?
James Sebenius: Sure. In some ways this was the most unexpected and, in many respects, most interesting aspect of writing the book. I practically knew nothing about this, and as I’ve spoken to people subsequently that’s pretty common. Here’s the context and then let me tell you what the result was, and then we can get into the how, which I think is what’s really fascinating.
In Portugal, there was sort of a left-wing coup and then strongman was ousted and two Portuguese colonies, Angola on the west side of southern Africa, and Mozambique on the east side, both shifted toward Marxist orientation. And there was a significant push of Soviet and Cuban, in particular Cuban forces, into Angola. And this threatened significantly to destabilize the region and turn it into another front in the Cold War, which to this time, it had not really been.
The concern was that the Cuban troops, of which there were ultimately around 20,000, would begin to side with guerrilla movements throughout that region and effectively take control for the Soviets in particular. This certainly got Henry Kissinger’s attention, although in the white regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia, where white minority governments ruled, there was also a growing concern, sometimes very intense, that this situation was unstable enough was likely to erupt in outright war and that it would be a sort of a race war and a bloodbath in southern Africa, if something couldn’t be done.
And then there was the fact that many Americans were, you know, on the heels of the Civil Rights Act and otherwise, were specially sensitized to this relatively small white minority governments ruling over much larger black African populations. So there were a bunch of things going on then. Kissinger initially together… when I say Kissinger I should make clear that he and Richard Nixon were just uncommonly aligned in many respects. I say uncommonly because you almost have to look… the only parallels of the secretary of state and a president in modern times that seem comparable are George H.W. Bush and Jim Baker, and George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice. You know, where there just seems to be this deep alignment which is a great asset in negotiation.
But by this time, by the time of the southern Africa story, Richard Nixon had resigned as a result of Watergate Gerald Ford was in, and Kissinger wanted to try with the French to meld a covert action to block the Soviets and Cubans in Angola. This was found out and the Congress quickly forbade it, this was on the heels of Vietnam and there was no appetite for foreign military adventures.
So Kissinger decided to try to block the Soviet and Cuban move, as well as to prevent a race war, and see the emergence of some democratic principles by what I’ve come to call a negotiation campaign, that’s kind of the broader context. It’s almost remarkable that, you know, scarcely six months before his… Kissinger’s negotiation campaign as we call, it started. The head of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, a pretty remarkable character, if you looked at him you’d see it sort of a stern Scottish visage.
He had been an RAF pilot, been shot down a couple times, and half his face was paralyzed which gave him a kind of… this affect that people noticed. And he had proclaimed that the white men built Rhodesia, the white man owned Rhodesia, and black majority rule would not come to Rhodesia not now nor in a thousand years. And so it was pretty clear that he was an alterable opposed to any change in the political status quo.
Kissinger then embarked on a negotiation campaign that even in broad and somewhat prude and oversimplified terms, said to the frontline states in southern Africa, this would be, you know, Tanzania and Zambia and so forth. “If you guys will keep out foreign troops, any foreign troops, but particularly Soviet and Cuban,” because the American weren’t gonna put any troops in that region. “If you’ll do that, we will see if we can persuade the Rhodesian administration to accept black majority rule within two years.”
And that seemed almost impossible, and when the smoke cleared, Prime Minister Ian Smith went on TV and accepted just that and it was seismic. In fact, the press accounts around the world, you know, cover of “Time Magazine” the rest of it were just, “This was a staggering diplomatic achievement, averted a race war,” the prose is remarkable. What’s even more remarkable about it, is that in order to do this, Kissinger had persuaded the South Africans, of all people, to put the arm on the Rhodesians to accept black majority rule.
This is so remarkable in my mind and my sort of deal sense just was puzzled at why the South Africans would suggest that the neighboring Rhodesians, the only other white minority ruled entity in the region, would accept black majority rule, when that would simply isolate the South Africans and the pressures would all turn toward them. Anyway, so in that sense it was a remarkable negotiation, I got intrigued by it because this was done with no meaningful economic aid, there wasn’t much money involved, there was no U.S. military action nor any prospect of it.
And so it was kind of a pure negotiation, and in that way… and it was also quite, you know, I don’t wanna say uncontroversial, but it didn’t carry the same kind of public issues as did actions in Cambodia or in Chile or other places that are, you know, controversial to this day. And so it was kind of a laboratory. Interestingly, Henry Kissinger told us that this was the most complex negotiation he had ever carried out, which given, you know, the opening to China and descant an arms control with the Soviets, and the ‘73 Middle East War and, you know, Paris peace talks and so forth, struck us as pretty remarkable.
So that’s a long-winded way of saying, “How did we get interested in this negotiation? And what did he do to pull this off?” And that was kind of crafting a strategy and executing it and so forth. And the principles that you could kind of extract from a close reading of this applies very widely, I’ve, you know, shared them with high-level private sector audiences who first have never heard of this story, and sort of practically never heard of it, and are utterly intrigued, and with some of my MBA students and others.
And it’s in some ways because it’s so improbable seeming that a Republican administration at the time would find itself 17 years before, you know, Mendel and De Klerk had their… you know, effectively ended apartheid in South Africa, that Kissinger was responsible for this. Probably the reason that this has been so long forgotten is that the actual transition to black majority rule took a couple more years. Gerald Ford lost the election, Kissinger was a lame duck and then out, and the process pretty much ground to a halt but picked up again a couple years later in London Atlantic Lancaster House, in which you know, with intensive negotiations, but essentially ratified the Kissinger plan.
So it was… you know, and the result of that unhappily for what Rhodesia turned into which was Zimbabwe was Robert Mugabe. And Mugabe ruled, you know, initially fairly popularly and later dictatorially and ground the place down, you know, economically and politically. So the actual result of it long term, you know, while it was a victory for democratic principle if you will, it was a disaster in terms of Mugabe. And I think that’s part of the reason, plus Kissinger’s controversy elections in other areas that this was kind of been forgotten. But at the time, it was seen as a staggering diplomatic triumph to quote the “London Observer.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Part two of the book you concentrate on zooming out and seeing the broader picture. How would you characterize that strategic orientation toward seeing the bigger picture?
James Sebenius: Well, this is something that… if I can kind of step back from this for a moment. One thing that crystallized for me and my colleagues in writing this book, that I realized that I’d seen in many other negotiators but never really recognized, was that really effective negotiators tend to zoom out, if you will, to the big picture, to sort of the broader strategy that they’re trying to pursue. And in the course of negotiations, zoom in to the particular person. And they do this iteratively and often, bringing the sort of macro and the micro together to attain their objectives.
And it’s not really like a two-step process that you zoom out to the bigger picture and come up with a strategy, and then you zoom in and you execute it. It tends to be back and forth, you know, big picture to small. And what’s so remarkable about this, I think the reason that we identified the book or the structure of the book as zooming out and zooming in, is that we saw Kissinger doing this consciously and… or, you know, I should say almost unconsciously, but continually.
And I know lots of people who are terrific strategists in analytical fights who, if you will, zoom out very effectively, and many times they’re not very good interpersonally. And yet they’re people who are really good, they’re persuasive, they’re great schmoozers, they’re interpersonally very skillful, but often are not strategically particularly adept, and sometimes they don’t even care about that. And I think what distinguishes Kissinger in our view, and many other great negotiators as we’ve kind of crystallized this approach, is the capacity to both zoom out and zoom in and cultivate that as a skill.
We found that with executives and business school students and so forth, that this is something that can be cultivated. In any case, that actually ended up structuring the book, you know, into the elements of zooming out and the elements of zooming in. You asked me about the kind of strategic aspect in zooming out, and what I realized is Kissinger almost encapsulated this when he compared himself to William Rogers who was Nixon’s Secretary of State. And Kissinger actually respected Rogers as an effective lawyer.
But when Kissinger thought about negotiations, he really contrasted Rogers who tended to focus on the specific conflict, or the specific deal that he wanted, and see how you could do that. In contrast Kissinger said, “You need long-term objectives, and you need to… you know, it’s not really short term in orientation. And then you need to look at the broader context and possible links among the parties and the issues in the regions over time. Again, not treating each negotiation on seemingly independent merits. So you have a kind of a broader context, a kind of a wide angle lens to see what might be relevant to this, and how other pieces could be used to advance your agenda here.
“And then a careful plan to achieve these negotiating objectives by actions directly at the table, and often indirectly away from the table to shape incentives and penalties to maximize influence.” So, you know, there is this plan. The kind of strategic approach also was always adaptability. Firm long-term objectives but a lot of flexibility as to the means, things change other sides make other moves, new information surfaces. And the plan is not kind of a fixed recipe that you just make or architectural blueprint that you execute step by step.
And finally, there was a kind of a reputation, a continual focus on credibility across negotiations and over time. You know, doing what you say you’re gonna do and not doing what you say you’re not gonna do. And when you put these things together, you know, long-term objective looking at the broader context and possible links, direct and indirect plan to achieve the goal, adaptability to changes, and a focus on credibility, those elements really characterize what we thought of as… or came to crystallize as a sort of the strategic approach that Kissinger had when he would zoom out.
And his associates, and they were numerous and illustrative and we talked to and knew in many cases, they underscored. For example, Harold Saunders in the shuttle diplomacy after the ‘73 war broke out between the Arab states and the Israelis. Kissinger was doing a shuttle diplomacy. How Saunders, you know, kind of almost lamented how between each of the something like 26 shuttle flights that Kissinger would say, “Okay, what’s our long-term strategy? Write that down. How does the next step support that strategy? What does our strategy suggest about the next step?”
And there was this sort of constant iteration between the big picture and the particular instance which was, you know, really discipline. And Kissinger had his staff, you know, focus on that and he himself was key on it. So it was the sort of zooming out and the broader strategy was a big deal. And when you look at the relationship between the negotiations over China, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, so forth, and certainly Vietnam, he was always looking at the relationships among these things as to how negotiations in one area might affect, and ideally help the negotiations elsewhere.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s discuss a little bit the Middle East war as a case study for zooming out. When the Egyptian and Syrian armies invaded Israel in 1973, it came as a total surprise for U.S. and Israeli leaders. The U.S. had to manage an hour-by-hour of crisis, Nixon even talked about going to Def-Con three. How did they fit this hour-by-hour of crisis into the bigger strategic picture? And exactly what was the bigger strategic picture?
James Sebenius: Well, you’re right, the war was an intelligence surprise, not least to the Israelis, and certainly to the administration. And you’re also right that hour by hour they were trying to figure out what to do, which involved, you know, resupply the Israelis and trying to make sure that this didn’t escalate into a superpower confrontation, while at the same time really pushing U.S. interests. So it was managed very, very closely, and it was quite dicey.
It fit into a larger strategic concept in an interesting way, and you almost have to go back to 1970. When Kissinger wrote a few articles, and as he put it somewhat incautiously indicated that one of the administration’s priorities was to significantly reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East, which was quite considerable. And he got a lot of grief for that, it seemed presumptuous and almost irrelevant how is the U.S. going to, you know, reduce Soviet influence, you know, in the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt, and Syria, and other you know, virtual client States at the time.
So the thought was there and they thought about it, but they didn’t have any really clear specific way to do this. The pieces were being put in place though in an interesting way. A clear priority for Nixon and Kissinger was to reduce the risk of nuclear war, and this meant lessening tensions with the Soviet Union, and reducing nuclear arms and so forth. The Soviets were playing kind of hard to get on that.
And Kissinger and Nixon also realized and not fully but later it became much clearer, that while lots of people thought about a monolithic Soviet… I mean a monolithic communist bloc kind of lumping the Chinese and the Soviets together, that there was actually considerable tension between these two communist giants. And on the Ussuri River, on the border, in fact there were forty modern mechanized Soviet divisions, and about 850,000 Chinese troops, they were skirmishing quite a lot in… you know, this is would be in, you know, ’69 and ’70 and ‘71. And there were hundreds of casualties and so forth.
Interestingly, Mao was very worried that the Soviets might invade China. Remember in 1968, the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia, and ‘56 in Hungary. And the idea was if a country strayed from the true communist path, there was a right the Soviets asserted to set them straight, which meant invading. And Mao was worried enough about this because the Chinese Communist way had diverged from the Soviet quite considerably, and there was this semi-hot war on their borders. Mao was worried enough about this with some triggering events that he actually had the Chinese government evacuated from, you know, what was then Peking.
And Kissinger and Nixon actually realized that the Chinese could use the Americans as a counterweight to the Soviets. And that was much of the motivation behind the opening to China, which is its own complex story. But once that initiative was undertaken and the Chinese and the Americans began to develop more of a relationship, that kind of unfroze the Soviets who were worried about the U.S. Chinese axis, and the Soviets became more forthcoming.
I’m gonna relate this to the Middle East in just a moment. But Kissinger and Nixon really wanted to put the U.S. in a position to where it was closer to each of the two communist giants than either was to the other. Kissinger was almost emulating what he’d written about Bismarck having done. And did this, and began to deepen relationships, or in the language that Kissinger uses, deepen the stakes that each of China and Russia had about the other… or, sorry, had in improved relations with the United States and so were different reasons.
Now, there are a lot of implications of this for Vietnam and otherwise, but when the Middle East crisis erupted, and Kissinger had gone significantly down the path toward improving relations with China and the Soviet Union, and each of them saw increasing value in relations with the United States, that kind of gave Kissinger the confidence to really push figuring that the Soviets, you know, would not go all out and risk breaking what was an increasingly valuable relations with the U.S.
So it was ugly but the calculation was in fact correct, that while the Soviets could make trouble in the Middle East, they couldn’t really help the Syrians or the Egyptians attain their objectives, but the Americans could. So by a combination of meeting Soviet military moves with American supplies and so forth, and kind of checkmating the military side of the story, essentially Kissinger said to the Egyptians in particular and later the Syrians, “If you deal with us, you can actually attain your objectives, you know, down the road get the Sinai back and so forth, the Russians can’t really do that for you. But in order to deal with us, and have us work with you, you’re gonna have to continue to push out the Soviets.”
And so really as a result of all of these interconnected pieces, and the way the negotiations actually went, first Kissinger negotiated disengagement agreements between the Egyptians and the Israelis over the Sinai. Then a kind of motive that then be of the Golan Heights with the Syrians. And as the smoke cleared, Soviet influence in the region was radically reduced really for about 40 years until the Soviets came back into Syria largely unopposed by the U.S. So, you know, one might look at this as there’s a hot war, Egypt and Syria and some other Arab armies are attacking the Israelis on Yom Kippur. How does one stop this and make peace or at least stop the bloodshed?
That was certainly part of the focus, but if you step back, you see a much broader strategic concept and a set of objectives. In looking at this and how these played into the particulars of those negotiations, I thought, you know, were fascinating. Does this get at the sort of micro macro aspect that we’ve been talking about? I haven’t talked about his intriguing negotiations with Golda Meir, or Anwar Sadat, or Hafez Assad. But those were sort of the guiding principles and the guiding sort of strategic conception that played out, you know, in those talks.
Jonathan Movroydis: Earlier you talked a little bit about credibility in negotiations. Is it a matter of keeping one’s word in the negotiations? Or do the laws of the international arena dictate that you have to back your words with raw power?
James Sebenius: Kissinger is probably the foremost exponent of credibility in negotiation. Although among really effective negotiators it’s nearly universal. And by credibility it’s both positive and negative. We will do what we say we’re gonna do, and that can be offer rewards, create an alliance whatever it might be, as well as carry out threats. And we will refrain from what we say we’re not gonna do. So Kissinger almost draws an analogy between credibility and negotiation in an individual’s character.
If I were looking at it analytically I’d say you’re trying to get your counterparts in negotiation to assign a high probability that your words are not bluff, and so it really matters. Virtually anybody in negotiation will underscore that. However, where it starts to get very tricky is when the costs of carrying out what one has said you were going to do, begin to be much larger in the prospect of success, much more dim. And the classic case of that is in Vietnam.
The term credibility almost became a dirty word because, you know, four U.S. presidents had told the South Vietnamese that the U.S. would back them. And Kissinger saw that was absolutely vital to stick with that commitment because it would affect U.S. relationships everyplace else. And the Chinese, if they didn’t perceive the U.S. would back up its words with action, why would they rely on the U.S. as a counterweight against the Soviets and so forth? Kissinger was really articulate on this point.
And yet others would say, “Look. at a certain point, if you’re not gonna succeed in an area, if circumstances have changed then credibility becomes kind of a fetish.” And there’s almost a cottage industry among academics in international relations of which I’m not one, but I have many colleagues who are, who look at, you know, credibility, you know, “Does it really matter? Doesn’t really matter.” There are lots of studies on it. Can you overdo it and so forth?
But I think in negotiations and among effective negotiators, that sense you will do what you say you’re gonna do and refraining from what you say you’re not gonna do, is really a bedrock of effectiveness. As you move into the broader foreign policy arena where the credibility of countries’ commitments overall, it can become more arguable. But it’s also one of the reason that when you think of Kissinger’s kind of zooming out in broader approach, he was always asking, “If what I do here…” whether it’s in Southern Africa or whether it’s in, you know, China or Paris or whatever, “…other people will be looking at that and making a judgment about my credibility elsewhere.”
So it was, you know, you don’t just look at a negotiation in isolation but its influence on your reputation for credibility elsewhere. And that was just… that I would say is a bedrock of his approach to negotiation.
Jonathan Movroydis: In chapter five you speak a bit about the three kind normative approaches to negotiation. You talk about the theological view, the psychiatric view, and the realist view. Can you talk a little about each of them and tell us where Dr. Kissinger falls?
James Sebenius: “I never heard about theologians and psychiatrists with respect to negotiations,” those were his words. But what he essentially meant was a theologian, in Kissinger’s phrase looking at negotiation, was someone who pretty much thought of negotiation as the kind of cleanup work, you know, after you’ve established an overwhelmingly powerful situation, and somebody effectively concedes and you negotiate their surrender. So really until you have an overwhelmingly powerful position there’s really no point in negotiation.
And there were a number of people in the Cold War that felt that around the Soviets, that there was no point in negotiating with these people, they weren’t reliable, they’re only deceptive, and the only thing they understood was power. So there wasn’t any point in negotiating except once one had developed overwhelming superiority, and then there’s kind of a mystical somehow that translates into the kind of agreements that you want.
That, by the way, has its counterpart, you know, in pretty much every era. So you’ll find Dick Cheney saying, you know, “We don’t negotiate with evil. We defeat it.” And just, you know, a very strong view that negotiation has a pretty limited role relative to raw power. Personal relationship between power and negotiation is very, very important, but this is kind of an extra strong version of that view.
Psychiatrists, in Kissinger’s words, a little derisively. I think meant that the kind of naive people who said you should always negotiate. And more than that, most disagreements or conflicts are primarily the result of misunderstandings or feelings of vulnerability. And if we can clear those up then we’ll all eye to eye and our interests will coincide. And Kissinger really had no patience for that. And he sort of looked at these as the two kind of ineffective poles of negotiation.
The term realist is one that we debated a little bit about whether to use, because the term realist is very close to realpolitik. And that’s the kind of doggy dog view of international relations that has countries pretty much always clambering for relative power against each other in kind of a zero-sum context.
We used the term realistic in a different sense, and one that we think captures how Kissinger looked at negotiation. He would say, “They have interests, we have interests. Are there agreements that we can strike that simultaneously are better for both sides than a failure to agree?” And that meant you look at with a hardheaded sense not a kind of a sentimental sense or looking for atmospherics. But tangible agreements that are better in terms of the interests of each side as they see them than the consequences of no deal.
So you’re always weighing the sort of deal versus no deal balance, and only where you can craft a deal so that it’s better than no deal for all sides are you gonna get an agreement, but you should look for those things. So negotiation is a means to an end, it’s not something that you always do or something that you never do. And that’s the distinction between the sort of theologians and psychiatrists versus how we characterize Kissinger who didn’t see himself in either of those camps.
Jonathan Movroydis: You touched on striking the… or shaping the deal/no deal balance. When exactly do you know when to… or in Kissinger’s case, when did he exactly know when to pull out of the deal or think that… or believe that not having a deal was more strategically beneficial than actually getting one?
James Sebenius: Well, I think if Kissinger decided that a counterpart was unreliable, unable to make a deal, unwilling to actually carry it out once made, that the chances of him saying yes would be quite low. But I think the deal/no deal balance is a crucial indicator for a realistic negotiator of where a deal is possible. And one of the things that I think was interesting, other than looking at the remarkable successes of Kissinger, were some of the negotiations where things didn’t work out. And in particular, he tried very hard to persuade the Pakistanis not to develop a military nuclear program and failed in that negotiation.
And what became pretty clear is that no deal for Ali Bhutto’s government really meant that they would in fact develop a nuclear weapon. That this would be a counterpart to India, that it was a matter of both his political future and prestige. And that’s what no deal meant, that’s what saying no to Kissinger meant. And pretty much all of the inducements or meaningful threats that Kissinger or the American government might bring to bear, as well as the outside players, France and others, you know, might put together, no deal was gonna be superior, and they pretty much had to give up on that.
There was another really interesting example that I knew next to nothing about. You referred earlier to the ‘73 War between Egypt, Israel, and Syria and so forth. There were two disengagement accords that not only greatly reduced Soviet influence in the Middle East, but have really stood to this day. The Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement over the Sinai and the Syrian-Israeli deal over the Golan.
With those in place, Kissinger really hoped to do a third disengagement agreement with the Jordanians. And his idea was that the Palestinians with the PLO, and under Yasser Arafat, were most unlikely to ever make a deal with the Israelis. But if Palestinians were effectively under Jordanian control, a deal might be much more likely. And of course, this theme had happened… you know, was reiterated much later and many other times.
But it at the time Kissinger tried to persuade the Jordanian king that if he, Kissinger, could induce the Israelis to give up some of the territory from the ‘67 War, to take political control of the Palestinians, that the chances of an Israeli-Jordanian deal that would encompass the Palestinians would be much greater.
Well, he really worked on that third disengagement agreement and lots and lots of effort and shuttle diplomacy went into it. But, you know, after the ‘73 War, which was a total surprise and nearly a mortal disaster for the Israelis, Golda Meir, the then prime minister and the Labor Party were heavily damaged by that. Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister and he had a one vote, majority in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
And Kissinger was trying to persuade him to do a third disengagement accord with the Jordanians. And the first two by the way were not that popular in Israel at the time. And so he was hesitant, and then when the Arab League, in a meeting in Rabat in the middle of these negotiations, declared the PLO to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Kissinger looked at it. And you say, “Okay, a deal might be very advantageous. We can see why you’d want to have it, but no deal to the other parties, it looks like that’s gonna be where it goes.” And so he pretty much had to give up on that.
So it’s kind of a gauge of where a deal makes sense or doesn’t make sense. In both the Rhodesian case and the Vietnam case, one of the central barriers to the agreement that Kissinger sought, was that no deal looked much better than his counterparts. So Ian Smith, the Rhodesian head, he wanted to keep power naturally, and for the whites in Rhodesia this was very important, so no deal was very attractive. Relative to saying, “Yes, we’ll accept the principle of black majority rule.”
And if you go to the Paris peace talks, there’s a famous kind of moment when the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho, is talking to Kissinger on the steps of the villa in Paris, and saying, “I really don’t know why I even need to talk to you, because I’ve spent time with George McGovern, I know what’s going on in the U.S. All we have to do is wait because you’re gonna take out all your troops anyway. And so why would we say yes, because we just wait a little bit and we’ll prevail?”
So if you translate this into the deal/no deal language, no deal was very attractive to Ian Smith and to the North Vietnamese and Le Duc Tho. So what Kissinger had to do was a combination of either make a deal sweeter or no deal worse, and that really guided his negotiating strategy in both cases. And it’s elaborate that in effect, in the Rhodesian case, by a complex coalition of moderate and radical black African states, plus South Africans, Ian Smith’s no deal option, his continued preference to say no, was much reduced in attractiveness.
In fact, it was almost untenable at which point a deal or a yes made sense. And really in the Vietnam talks, Le Duc Tho would look like no was superior because, domestically, Nixon and Kissinger would be forced to draw everything down and get out and so forth. And so really what Kissinger and Nixon ended up doing, on multiple fronts, were a series of actions that made that continued no much less attractive.
Some of it was on the battlefield, and the spring offensive, but probably the most intriguing aspects were continually working on the Chinese and the Soviets, the principal backers of the North Vietnamese, to cause them to reduce their diplomatic and in some cases material support for the North Vietnamese on whom they greatly depended. And in that sense, after those things happened, they got the deal in ‘73 with the no deal option substantially worsened.
Now, of course, within two years, the North Vietnamese had essentially rebuilt, you know, their military might, and the deal fell apart after Watergate and so forth. But when you look at this deal/no deal aspect, Kissinger was constantly monitoring, “Does the deal make sense? Does no deal look better? And where do we have to make a deal sweeter or no deal worse? And how do we do that by often a complex series of other negotiations?” that my co-authors and I came to call a negotiation campaign.
You know, you think of doing a deal, but doing a negotiation campaign is actually more accurately what Kissinger did. And, by the way, a complex merger or doing an investment, you know, building a mine or a pipeline, you know, in another country, often there are many parties. A lot of them will say no. How do you get a deal simultaneously by improving, you know, no deal and worsening the… sorry, by improving the value of a yes, and worsening the cost of a no? It’s a simplistic description, but the way Kissinger actually did this is remarkably creative.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked about the Vietnam episode, and you write a quote in the book, it vividly illustrates the inseparability of tactics at the table, and the game-changing negotiating moves away from the table. In the case of Vietnam, you posed a question in the context of the negotiation strategies that you outlined throughout the book. Why not simply withdraw from Vietnam in 1969 rather than go through a process of, you know, four extra years of negotiation when the North Vietnamese weren’t gonna, you know, keep their word and make game-changing moves? Could you illustrate this a little bit?
James Sebenius: Sure. The thing into the Vietnam negotiations felt dicey to me partly, because there’s so much written and so much film, whether it’s Ken Burns or, you know, any number of Vietnam movies and otherwise. And it’s so mired in controversy that I wondered if we would gain anything by digging into this, or if everything that we found would be overshadowed by the controversy and it would be hard to learn much of anything.
But as we got into it, what I saw and tried to capture was how… you know, initially what I think I had thought of as a fairly strong U.S. position was actually quite weak. Kissinger and Nixon were committed to getting out of Vietnam, and from 550,000 troops. Well, within a couple of years they were down to 170,000, and by ‘73 down to 25,000. So they were on the way out and the North Vietnamese knew this.
Kissinger I think made four deep assumptions in continuing to prosecute the war. One is that Vietnam was strategically critical, a central front in the Cold War. Two, what the U.S. did in Vietnam would deeply affect its credibility elsewhere, especially with the Chinese and the Soviets. Three, Vietnamization could succeed and there was some evidence of that, although it was shakier. And four is that if they made a deal it would be enforceable.
At the time, in ‘69 when Nixon came into office, all of those kind of bedrock assumptions of going forward on Vietnam were contested by a lot of people. But many people held to those including Kissinger and Nixon of course. And the negotiations, based on those premises, I was really impressed with how they tried to make these things… you know, how they carried them out, very creatively with the Russians and the Chinese and, you know, the Western Europeans and the Germans in particular. There’s a web of actions that were devoted toward making no deal worse for the North Vietnamese. And they ended up actually getting this deal.
But as it happened, when Richard Nixon resigned in ‘74, and the deal had been struck of course in ’73, within a couple of years the U.S. was unable to supply, you know, the continued aid to the South Vietnamese and the airpower that had been decisive in some of the later year spring offensive battles in Vietnam. And as a result, you know, the negotiations failed. Well, they failed and the North took over and atrocities in both people, and reeducation, and, you know, the whole… it was a disaster for a long time.
And so the reasonable question was, “If it was gonna end up that way, why not simply pull out or negotiate the, you know, release of American prisoners, and a few other things in early ‘69 when Nixon took office and save all of the killing and destruction and wounded over the four years between ‘69 and ‘73 when the deal was done, and still the North Vietnam would take over, but you wouldn’t have had all that intervening bloodshed and so forth?” And it’s a very powerful argument.
To understand what Nixon and Kissinger I think we’re doing is if you take those four assumptions that I’ve identified, and said, “That’s what we believe,” then going ahead I think in their view made sense, and the negotiations were impressive. But if those four things were not true, going ahead, I think didn’t make a lot of sense no matter how sophisticated the negotiation. And that’s really, when I look at it the tricky thing, because after the fact ex post and to many people at the time, the U.S. should have gotten out of Vietnam, it really didn’t make sense to stay there.
But that was really a function of one’s judgment on the strategic significance of Vietnam, its implications for credibility, the prospects for Vietnamization, and whether a deal could ultimately be enforced. So I look at those, and the broader lesson that I draw from that, not so much for foreign policy although certainly there. But the broader lesson I draw from it is, you know, you really wanna have… you wanna be sure of your assumptions when you go into a deal. You know, you can have a pretty fancy negotiating strategy to take over, you know, a merger but, say, to consummate a complicated merger with a lot of different parties and so forth.
But if you’re merging with the wrong party or you’re making an investment in the wrong company, great negotiation isn’t gonna save what’s a flawed policy or a flawed economic set of judgment. So it’s a painful thing because you look at it and I think at the time I was a college student, and in the latter years of Vietnam, and in, you know, ‘74 and ‘75, when I was nearing graduation from college, it was really hard to see why the U.S. was in Vietnam at all as we were pulling out and South Vietnam was falling and so forth.
And, you know, stepping back many years later and looking at this thing, you could see the rationale or at least I believe I’ve fairly constructed it, I think there’s a lot to learn from the negotiation. But the basic assumptions really matter, and in that case, I think they prove to be to be flawed, although the creativity and the negotiations themselves has I think a lot of lessons to teach us.
Jonathan Movroydis: The third part of your book you talk about zooming in, specifically starting off with the reading counterparts. Kissinger essentially believes in understanding the individuals as the individual counterparts he was dealing with in both their cultural and political contexts. You say that there are some stereotypes here, but Kissinger felt the need to understand each individual differently. You know, for example, if you view that the Chinese negotiate in a certain way, there’s various counterparts. There’s the chairman Mao Zedong and there is a premier Zhou Enlai. Could you take us through Kissinger’s perspective on this?
James Sebenius: You know, it was almost ironic moment because in my capacity as a professor at Harvard Business School, and teaches by the case method, and our case studies all come, you know, from careful time in the field with the people who are actually doing what it is that we’re studying. And then come back with case studies where we put the students in the protagonist issues and get them to make the difficult decisions and so forth.
And it hadn’t been too long before we interviewed Dr. Kissinger here at Harvard, when I had been writing a case study of contract manufacturing negotiations in Shenzhen, a commercial part of China not too far from Hong Kong. And I remember, you know, people would ask me “You know, what’s the advice you have for negotiating with the Chinese?” And I had written a bunch of case studies on just that topic although mostly private sector.
And then we had Dr. Kissinger here, and I asked him early in our interviews, I said, “So what advice would you have for negotiating with the Chinese?” And he paused as he often does before answering a question, and essentially began by saying, “When I was dealing with Chairman Mao, and I must say the contrast between a contract manufacturing transaction in Shenzhen versus when I was dealing with Chairman Mao was a striking contrast, you know, for just my own… the difference among these things.”
But what was intriguing to me is exactly what you say that while Kissinger looked at significant differences say between “the Chinese style, and the Soviet style of negotiation,” which in broad strokes he saw major differences, but right away in talking about Chairman Mao, he saw the kind of the philosopher, the visionary, the strategic, you know, big think player and so forth.
And that was really different from Chou Enlai, and he saw there an overlap with the strategic thinker, but very much the administrator and, you know, the executor of, you know, of Chinese policies. And Deng Xiaoping, again very different and, you know, much earthier, almost more stereotypically American, you know, in his directness and otherwise. And Kissinger was at pains to say, “You don’t want to stereotype. You really need to understand each of these people in their context,” and very quickly differentiated among those. And he did between, say, you know, Brezhnev, and Kosygin and Dobrynin in the Soviet Union, between Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir in Israel, Anwar Sadat and Assad and others.
And, in fact, one of things that I found really surprising in looking into these negotiations was the depth of his focus on individuals, their experiences, their history, their context, what made them tick, their areas of strength and vulnerability, and the source of, you know, places to which they might be appealed, where someone might appeal to them effectively. And he was really a student of people in that regard.
And, frankly, when I think of… you know, my first thought about Kissinger before getting into this very deeply was much more the sort of geopolitical grandmaster on a global chess board kind of moving the pieces. And I think he was that in many respects, but he was also very, very focused on individual people. And you could see this either as highly sort of devilishly manipulative as some of Kissinger’s antagonists like his Harvard colleague Stanley Hoffmann thought, or you could see it as simply really effective.
But there’s no question in my mind that his insights into people was cultivated and deep. He wanted not to stereotype individuals within a setting, but he also really wanted to understand the political context in which they made situations. And so an Israeli decision, you know, you needed to understand both the Israeli historical experience, the structure of the Knesset, the way, you know, that the Israeli cabinet worked.
I think Kissinger acknowledged a failure to have such an understanding in one of his negotiations with the Japanese, where thinking of the prime minister, you know, most U.S. presidential terms, when the prime minister is a product of consensus, and really only has a role to build consensus and can’t, as independently, make claims or otherwise. And Kissinger talked about the decision-making process, the political culture, as well as the individual. And that was that was key in his assessments of how he might move this or that person.
And, you know, if you read through the portraits of the individuals, some of which we took great pains to see what he had written before he negotiated with them, as opposed to many years later in crafting his memoirs, and it was a consistent focus that people with whom we spoke with worked with Kissinger constantly indicated just how strongly the interpersonal was.
And if you think what a sharp contrast that is to how I was describing the work in… or the conceptualization of what I saw in his approaches in the ‘73 Middle East War, or for the Paris, or for the Southern African negotiations, they almost feel like they’re happening on different levels, hence the zooming out and zooming in.
Jonathan Movroydis: We’re still zooming in. In chapter 11, you discussed the fine art of wordsmithing and diplomacy when dealing with counterparts. Its particular arc called constructive ambiguity, and this became particularly useful during the drafting of the Shanghai Communique at the end of the historic trip to China in 1972. The two countries in particular had to break an impasse on the status of Taiwan. But they wanted to do more than just agree to disagree. Can you explain, in this case, what constructive ambiguity is and how was it used in this case?
James Sebenius: Yeah, constructive ambiguity, like credibility, has been one of those phrases that’s been associated with Kissinger, probably like shuttle diplomacy that are kind of trademarks. Constructive ambiguity is the art of crafting agreements that permit people to go forward in that they would like to do but can’t explicitly express often because of either domestic constituency reasons, or for their own self-image or otherwise. Because you’re right, it was intriguing because during the negotiations over the opening to China, the thorniest issue really was the status of Taiwan.
It wasn’t so much the Vietnam talks, it was that Vietnam War which was certainly important as China backed Vietnam. But the status of Taiwan which claimed to be the legitimate government of the whole of China, you know, and at the same time the People’s Republic of China claimed that, you know, Taiwan was merely a rebellious province of the larger entity. And Kissinger faced this negotiating challenge. You know, they needed a way, a sort of a formula to acknowledge the unity of China, which was one point in which the Taiwanese and the mainland Chinese agreed without actually supporting the claim of either.
And, you know, they were deeper reasons why the Chinese wanted the U.S. as a counterweight to the Soviets, but they couldn’t override this other consideration. And so Kissinger actually… and this issue…. these seemingly incompatible claims between the two sides, which there had been over 160 U.S Chinese meetings, you know, in many of them in Warsaw in Poland. And they just got nowhere, they hit this issue and it was just hit a wall.
And Kissinger modified a formula that had been around in the ‘50s, and more or less had been forgotten. But there’s this elegantly ambiguous formula and it was wordsmithing. And what he you said, I’m not gonna get these words exactly right, but he said, “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China. The United States government does not challenge that position.” I don’t know if those were his exact words but it’s essentially that.
And if you think about it, that permits each side to maintain what are incompatible positions, and the areas of mutually valuable cooperation to go forward, and Kissinger was really a master of this. And people who don’t understand negotiation might say, “Oh, that’s just words,” but oftentimes words or the failure to come up with effective words are major stumbling blocks or complete barriers to reaching an agreement.
The positive side is if something like this, like the Shanghai Declaration, lets the U.S. and the Chinese begin to develop a relationship and get closer and so forth, then you may have the basis for a more explicit set of agreements, which the U.S. did when they later, you know, established diplomatic relations within the formally recognized the Chinese.
But, you know, constructive ambiguity can be very helpful. The downside of constructive ambiguity is if you’re just papering over fundamental disagreements that are gonna blow up the deal. And so sometimes people will find formulations that let things go forward, but there’s no prospect, no meaningful prospect of things getting better. And then you essentially might have delayed things which could have been an objective but you may be creating worse problems down the road.
So there’s a fine line between constructive ambiguity that lets things go forward and, you know what doesn’t. You saw Kissinger do this in lots, and lots, and lots of time, sometimes just face saving. So, you know, he would describe things in somewhat different terms. So, for example, between the Egyptian and the Israeli. The Israelis would describe their negotiations as direct. And the Egyptian didn’t wanna acknowledge that they were directly dealing with the Israeli. So there’d be somebody else in the room. And so the Egyptians would describe the interaction as indirect. And Kissinger was very happy to just kind of let that stand.
And, you know, one of the things that in our interviews with George Shultz, he said to me something that I think is very wise. He said, “It’s amazing what people will often do as a result of a negotiation if you don’t force them to agree to do it.” In other words, sometimes the act of explicitly agreeing creates much obstacles whereby you could actually just do it, and get the result, but not agree to do it.
And this is where constructive ambiguity sort of shades and to test its bargaining. But there are any number of examples of this and that, you know, talk about zooming in, you’re precisely to the sort of wordsmithing piece of the story. But there were a lot of cases of that that we ran across in his negotiations.
Jonathon: Final question and we’re still zooming in here. Kissinger also believed in secrecy during negotiations, Nixon also believed in this, the importance of them. We see this both… we see this in the China rapprochement which we discussed a little here. You discussed some plus and minuses in the book regarding the tactic of secrecy. Can you touch up on that a little bit?
James Sebenius: Sure. I think just the predilections of both President Nixon and Kissinger was they tended to be pretty secretive, just by nature, it gave them more control over things and so forth. It also meant that if, for example, with the Chinese negotiations, had that become public, there would have been a domestic backlash, allies would have weighed in. The chances of being able to make it go forward were probably very, very small. It needed to be almost a fait accompli.
At the same time, if you’re carrying out secret negotiations, allies don’t know about it and they can be very offended by being cut out, bureaucrats don’t know about it, and that may be just a bureaucratic problem, but in many cases, especially in technical negotiations as those happened in the SALT II negotiations Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. They’re very, very technical issues, and a secret negotiation which cuts out a lot the technically-skilled players may miss some really important technical points.
And then there’s kind of a suspicion that grew, and Kissinger acknowledged this later, that if his negotiations were heavily secret, often as they were, the negotiations to China, to open up China were secret, there were secret talks in the Paris peace talks between him and Le Duc Tho while public talks were going on that were potentially not very meaningful, in dealing with the Soviet Union, he and Anatoly Dobrynin had something they called the channel, which was a private way that they could discuss things quite separately from the more overt diplomatic channels.
Similarly, in the Middle East he had secret talks. And the secrecy does enable you to exert a lot more control and keep enemies at bay and prevent backlashes. But after a while what starts to happen is the entities that do have a lot of expertise and do control constituencies and others begin to suspect that whatever is happening publicly is meaningless, and somewhere else the real negotiations are going on.
And then people begin to sabotage and to, you know, set things up, and Kissinger seemed quite ambivalent later about whether the kind of secrecy that he engaged in was ultimately something that would be sustainable. And he and Richard Nixon, I think, had a tendency, being quite distrustful of the bureaucracy to centralize things in the White House. Kissinger himself was immensely capable intellectually, and he had a small team that was very, very talented so this could work but it certainly had some significant downsides.
And it also, well, the diplomats, you know, I documented, you know, back to the, well, probably times immemorial, but back to the 16th and 17th century, there was always a sense that much of diplomacy had to be secret. Nevertheless, it kind of runs against democratic norms and, you know, President Wilson talked about open covenants openly arrived at. And that, to my ears and I think the most negotiation specialists, sounds very naïve, because open negotiations just attract all sorts of grandstanding and constituency intervention and so forth. But when there are secret talks and secret deals, you’ve got a real Democratic problem.
So I think, you know, open agreement secretly arrived at is not a bad way of thinking about it, but the secrecy, how widely the shadow of secrecy extends, “Is it just you when the president, and a couple of aides? Is it, you know, a negotiating team carefully selected?” There are a lot of pluses and a lot of minuses to secrecy, and I think Kissinger’s experience underscores that. I would say there’s no question about the value of secrecy on the Chinese situation, it gets a little more complicated when you look at the others.
But there’s no doubt that a secret channel that permits open exploration and testing of things without a lot of outside intervention can be helpful, but it can get overdone and have negative consequences. You could also get whipsawed by the way as the U.S. did in the in the Vietnam talks, where something would be said, or an understanding would be reached in secret in the secret talks. And publicly, in the public talks, the North Vietnamese would be lambasting the U.S. for not doing something that the U.S. said it would do in the secret talks.
That the U.S. felt that it couldn’t say anything about it because it would blow the cover of the secret talks, which were, you know, thought to be of great value. And this kind of thing, these kinds of games would happen all the time. So I think reading the book and then meditating on secrecy versus openness and negotiation, it really leads to a much more sophisticated conception of the process.
Jonathan Movroydis: What do you hope readers get from this book?
James Sebenius: I hope that people reading the book see the value of the strategic approach long term, a kind of wide angle and direct and indirect plans, you know, for accomplishing your goals, adaptability and credibility, that sort of strategic approach I think is really important and zooming out to such a strategic approach I think is key. But zooming in to interpersonal effectiveness, I think that’s… you know, recognizing its value and cultivating that is something that really effective negotiators can learn a lot from.
I think sometimes people tend to think of force and negotiation, or no deal versus a deal, as almost opposite poles. But reading through and analyzing Kissinger suggests a more realistic approach where you’re always looking at the deal/no deal balance and how they influence each other. Kissinger was a master in situations that seemed weak, of looking away from the table to change the game, the parties that were involved, the issue the no deal option, such that when he was focused on his real target, he would have a much, much better shot at achieving it. And rather than treating a negotiation kind of independently.
We haven’t talked about it much, but I think when people read some of these cases, the capacity to negotiate when there are multiple parties is interesting. So I would say, you know, the sort of zooming out, zooming, the strategic approach, holistic approach, being willing to change the game, and how to do that when there are a number of different parties internally and externally. These are all things that I think carry over from, you know, the diplomacy of the 1970s to business, financial and public policy, as well as diplomatic negotiations of today. That’s the spirit in which we wrote the book.
And frankly, I was really pleased that in sharing the book with a number of people, like I was not surprised for example that Jim Baker, a terrifically effective Secretary of State, and a great negotiator, you know, found it to be useful. That a couple of private sector people, Steve Schwarzman at the Blackstone Group found the book exciting, and very valuable for business people, and John Chambers in the tech sector was a long time ahead of Cisco. As well as, you know, probably the standard biography to the stage of Henry Kissinger is by Walter Isaacson, and it’s arguably a fairly critical biography. And Isaacson, you know, looked at the book and found it to have a lot of lessons.
We were really not trying to say, “Is Henry Kissinger a saint or a sinner?” but instead, “What can we learn from him?” And I think that if people feel like they can learn and find value for their own challenging negotiations, in a close examination of these negotiations, then I think it will have been a real success.
Jonathan Movroydis: The book is “Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level.” James Sebenius, thank you, for your time.
James Sebenius: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.
Jonathan Movroydis: I’m Jonathan Movroydis. You’ve been listening to another edition of “The Nixon Now Podcast.” Please stay tuned for upcoming episodes at nixonfoundation.org.