The Odd American View of Negotiation

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by Paul R. Pillar

One of the unfortunate corollaries of American exceptionalism is a warped and highly asymmetric conception of negotiation. This conception can become a major impediment to the effective exercise of U.S. diplomacy. Although the attitudes that are part of this view of negotiation are not altogether unique to the United States, they are especially associated with American exceptionalist thinking about the supposed intrinsic superiority of U.S. positions and about how the sole superpower ought always to get its way. The corollary about negotiation is, stated in its simplest and bluntest terms, that negotiation is an encounter between diplomats in which the United States makes its demands—sometimes expressed as “red lines”—and the other side accepts those demands, with the task of the diplomats being to work out the details of implementation. Or, if the other side is not going along with that script and acceding to U.S. demands, then the United States has to exert more pressure on the other side until it does accede.

This is markedly different from the rest of the world’s conception of negotiation, in which each side begins with positions that neither side will get or expects to get entirely, followed by a process of give-and-take and mutual concession to arrive at a compromise that meets the needs of each side enough that it is better for each than no agreement at all.

Americans’ domestic experience with negotiation has been only a partial corrective to their warped view of international negotiation, and that experience has become even less of a corrective in recent times. The United States has a long history of labor-management negotiations that have determined wages and working conditions of many Americans. But it also was in the United States that there arose Boulwarism, an approach to labor relations named after Lemuel R. Boulware, a vice president of General Electric in the 1950s, consisting of management putting a single, inflexible, take-it-or-leave-it formula on the table and refusing to make any concessions to unions. Boulwarism was found to be an unfair labor practice, but with the decline over the past few decades of labor unions and of the significance of collective bargaining for American workers, it in effect has come to prevail in much of the American economy.

Domestic American politics have followed a similar trajectory. Once upon a time, give-and-take and finding compromises were the daily stuff of American politics, including as practiced on Capitol Hill. Now, in a coarsened and hyper-partisan environment, they are so rare as to be a news item when they do still occur. What is now standard is the imposition of red lines—maybe called something else, such as litmus tests or no-tax pledges—and a focus on what kinds of pressure or extortion could achieve total defeat of the other side. Domestic trends, political and economic, thus have reinforced American ways of thinking about bargaining that have further entrenched the idiosyncratic and unhelpful American view of international negotiations.

A consequence of this view is to regard concessions and compromise not as necessary parts of negotiation but instead as a source of shame or a badge of weakness. We have seen this amid the flak the Obama administration is taking from its political opponents regarding its handling of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Among the criticisms, as if this really should count as criticism, have been observations that the United States has not rigidly held to what may have been earlier positions and demands. This sort of flak is found, for example, in a recent letter to the president from Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker expresses dismay about how the negotiations have involved movement from the administration’s “original goals and statements,” and he voices “alarm” about reports of—you’d better sit down before reading this—“potential concessions” by the United States on some issues on which full agreement has yet to be reached.

The proper response to such statements is: yes, the United States has been making concessions, and the Iranians have been making even more—that’s called negotiating.

Americans may not like to think that they are in the kind of bargaining relationship one might be with a rug merchant, but a bargaining relationship may exist whether one party says so or not. Even Boulware was in a bargaining relationship with labor unions, despite trying to approach the issues at hand as if he weren’t. Inflexibility is an approach toward bargaining, though not necessarily a good one; it is not a way of making the bargaining situation go away.

The fallacy of asymmetry in the American exceptionalist view of negotiation gets exposed when other parties issue reminders of how negotiation is really a two-way endeavor. Members of the Iranian majles did so this week with a bill co-sponsored by a majority of that legislature’s members. “At the moment, the negotiating team is facing excessive demands from the United States,” said the chairman of the national security and foreign policy committee. “The bill is being introduced with the aim of supporting the negotiators,” he said, “and to protect the red lines drawn up by the supreme leader.” The bill then stated demands regarding some of the remaining issues regarding international inspections, research and development, and the timing of sanctions relief. The majles members probably know as much about rug merchandising as do legislators in any other country, and it is unlikely that their bill betokens any failure to understand the need for compromise. The measure instead is a message being sent to their counterparts in Washington that two can play the same game and that no one issued an exclusive license to the United States to draw red lines.

The give-and-take of negotiation serves at least a couple of functions that parties on both sides of any issue would be smart to exploit. One is that this aspect of negotiation is a form of information gathering, in which the parties feel out what the other side cares about the most and cares about less, and thus where within the bargaining space the most mutually advantageous deals can be struck. Making a particular concession might, of course, be a dumb move, but it might instead be a prudent response to having found out more, through the negotiation process, about the other side’s preferences, objectives, and fears.

The give-and-take also means using concessions to get concessions. However distasteful some Americans may find this sort of trading, it is a fact of negotiating life, in international diplomacy as well as in other negotiating situations. Good negotiators recognize that, which is why they begin with “original goals and statements” that they fully expect they will not adhere to rigidly.

The American exceptionalist demand-and-pressure conception fosters misunderstanding of these realities. And this failure of understanding can lead to blowing good opportunities to use diplomacy to the fullest to strike bargains that advance U.S. interests.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for this article. The problem is, however, even worse. US negotiaters (see the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the Law of the Sea etc.) play hard-ball by using the argument that, if other countries do not give in, the Senate will not vote in favour. At last when the US Government is fully satisfied with the outcome, the Senate says no in any case, so what is the advantage of giving in to the US negotiaters?

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