Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant--a Harvard Business School professor and a Kennedy School case writer respectively--have written a book that succeeds on several levels but that is ultimately less powerful than it might have been, probably as a result of trying to serve too many masters.  The authors provide really fascinating accounts of four post-Cold War negotiations--nuclear arms proliferation talks between the U.S. and North Korea; the Israeli-Palestinian talks leading to the Oslo Accords; the creation of the Gulf War coalition (1991); and the confrontation between the US (and Europe) and Serbia that led to the Dayton Peace Accords--that each resulted, in their view, in some kind of major breakthrough, some difficult to achieve result.  These accounts are based on what must have been extensive interviews with key players, who are quoted frequently and who share the concerns and concepts that influenced them.   The book would be worthwhile even if all it contained were these detailed, often thrilling, narratives of several significant recent foreign policy conflicts.

But, in addition, these four negotiations provide the authors with the jump off points for extensive discussions of the personalities involved and the tactics they used.  The book is published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and in many ways it represents an attempt to bring the Socratic method out of the class room and on to the written page.  In parenthetical asides they ask the reader to consider why certain players took certain actions or how a key decision may have influenced the whole course of events, etc..  As you read, the authors are virtually present, pushing and prodding (in a helpful way) to make sure that you are conscious of the negotiating ploys that participants utilize.

Meanwhile, in their own analysis of events, they spell out the four core concepts of what they call "breakthrough negotiation" :

    (1) Diagnosing structure

    (2) Identifying barriers to agreement

    (3) Managing conflict

    (4) Building momentum

and seven principles that guide breakthrough negotiators :

    (1) Breakthrough Negotiators Shape the Structure of Their Situations

    (2) Breakthrough Negotiators Organize to Learn

    (3) Breakthrough Negotiators are Masters of Process Design

    (4) Breakthrough Negotiators Foster Agreement When Possible But Employ Force When Necessary

    (5) Breakthrough Negotiators Anticipate and Manage Conflict

    (6) Breakthrough Negotiators Build Momentum Toward Agreement

    (7) Breakthrough Negotiators Lead from the Middle

They use innumerable examples to illustrate these concepts and principles and the overall structure certainly provides a framework that would be useful to anyone involved in negotiations.  In this regard, they have produced what will likely be an excellent textbook for use in the classroom.

So far so good; but the book also seems to be at least partially intended for a wider audience, and here it runs into some difficulties, largely as a result of the textbook format and of the choice of geopolitical negotiations as a subject matter.   As a threshold matter, I don't believe that these negotiations between nation states hold terribly many lessons for business executives, who are presumably a significant portion of the intended wider audience, because one or both of the participants in these cases usually lack the option of just ending the negotiation, an option which is almost always available in the business setting.  Coca-Cola can simply decide not to buy Joe's Cola and can walk away, but Serbia can't really ignore the United States and Western Europe.  No businessman, not even a Bill Gates, is ever likely to have the overwhelming leverage that the U.S. brings to the negotiating table.

The biggest problem though is that if you apply the first of the authors' own core concepts (diagnosing structure) to their chosen four examples you see that the breakthrough generally occurred prior to, or at, the moment negotiations started.  Thus, the actual content of the Oslo Accords was pretty much insignificant; what really mattered was the implicit admission by the parties that Israel and a Palestinian state were each realities that the other side needed to cope with.  Even today, with the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians at its all time nadir, they are relatively close to a final accord.  Israel will eventually declare a Palestinian state unilaterally and the Palestinians will be forced to accept the boundaries that Israel imposes.  The breakthrough occurred with Oslo when the two sides, just by entering negotiations, acknowledged each others existence as a political fact.

Similarly, when the United States sat down to discuss nuclear proliferation with the North Koreans, the real drama was over and North Korea had won.  That this was true is revealed in a chart that the authors include which analyzes the interests of the two parties :

        United States
        *Preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons
        *Preventing an arms race in Asia
        *Undermining the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea)

        North Korea
        *Ensuring security by acquiring nuclear weapons
        *Bolstering a failing economy
        *Winning international recognition

It is obvious that North Korea could effectively achieve its aims regardless of what the final agreement actually required.  They were bargaining with the U.S. as an equal, would certainly get some aid and would save money by not having to build nuclear weapons, and they would essentially make the U.S. the guarantor of their security, however unwitting or unwilling, because, having negotiated the agreement, there was no way the U.S. was going to turn around and topple the DPRK.  And so, what did the U.S. stand to get out of the negotiation?  Well, even if we realized all our goals, wed still have strengthened one of the most loathsome regimes on the planet, left them free to pursue an unlimited conventional arms buildup, and, just as in Iraq, could have little way of knowing whether they'd truly given up their nuclear arms program.  Here again, we see that the details of the negotiation didn't much matter; the structure had already determined the results.

The two other cases are somewhat different, but in both instances the inevitable conclusion of the negotiations was determined at the moment that the United States determined it was serious about pursuing a goal.  Mr. Watkins and Ms Rosegrant are quite frank about the fact that once the world's only superpower announced its interest in these matters, the other parties were left with few or no options but to go along or risk being destroyed.  Realistically, with America headed to war, the only safe place is at her side, so James Baker had little trouble lining up allies for the Gulf War.  And once America demonstrated it's seriousness in the Balkans, by bombing Serbs, Slobodan Milosevic had to sue for peace.   Again, the breakthroughs preceded, or were independent of, the negotiations.

It is of interest that in all of these cases, and in several others that they could have included (South Africa and Northern Ireland), the most important single factor leading to breakthrough was the final defeat of the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s.   This removed vital financial, material, and other support from such terrorist groups as the PLO and the IRA; removed nuclear protection from such rogue nations as Iraq and North Korea; and removed Western support for brutal but strategically important regimes like the apartheid government in South Africa and military governments in Latin America and elsewhere.  In a unilateral world, dominated by America, the structure of negotiations is largely determined by U.S. wishes and she and her allies typically reap the benefits.  Had the Soviet Union existed, North Korea might not even have been willing to negotiate with the U.S., nor the PLO with Israel, nor the Serbs with anybody, nor the IRA with the Protestant Irish, etc., etc., etc....   In the absence of a substantial opponent, american policy tends to prevail, even if, as in Korea, that policy is ill-considered.

Mind you, the authors are so thorough, insightful, and honest that they do discuss many of these issues, even if only tangentially, and they are forthright in depicting "breakthrough negotiators" as those folks (Richard Holbrooke and James Baker, for example) who keep their eye on the big picture and don't get distracted by the particulars of agreements.  (There's a funny bit where Holbrooke is totally dismissive of questions over where national borders were going to be drawn, demonstrating genuine contempt for what were mere details on the way to the foreordained peace.)  But if they were writing a pure analysis of these conflicts, one assumes they would really pounce on these factors and use them to show where the real key to such breakthroughs lies, not in the negotiation process, but in the mere acceptance of negotiation.  In fact, all of this could probably be considered to fall under their own broad rubric of "diagnosing structure."   I guess my quibble here is that they aren't rigorous enough in this diagnosis.  On the other hand, if they were as rigorous as I want them to be, the detailed tactical analysis that makes up the rest of the book would be rendered pretty meaningless; they would end up sacrificing the textbook in the process of demonstrating how well just one part of their analytical structure works.

As is, Mr. Watkins and Ms Rosegrant have produced an excellent textbook and an absorbing depiction of how four major international conflicts were resolved (at least temporarily).  I'd recommend the book for use in the classroom without reservation, and to the general reader with only mild qualifications.  And I look forward to reading the essays and articles in which they apply their framework to bring much needed clarity to seemingly impenetrable conflicts.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Breakthrough International Negotiation (Jossey-Bass)
    -COURSE SITE : Taking Charge: Transition Strategies for New Business Leaders (Harvard Business School)
    -DISCUSSION : Harvard Colloquium : Negotiating Foreign Policy : The Impact of Domestic Politics  (Michael Watkins, Moderator)
    -INTERVIEW :  Michael Watkins : As e-business increasingly challenges rules about business, it's even more critical that all businesses build beneficial relationships with government. (Jane Falla, Advisor)

    -Arms Control Association
    -Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
    -Center for Nonproliferation Studies
    -North Korea's Nuclear Program (Center for Nonproliferation Studies)
    -North Korea's Ballistic Missile Program  (Center for Nonproliferation Studies)
    -ARCHIVES : Congressional Research Service [CRS] Reports Nuclear, Chemical and Missile Weapons and Proliferation
    -Chronology of U.S.-North Korea Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy (August 2001, Arms Control Association)
    North Korea's strange autocrat (John Thornhill and Andrew Ward, December 13 2002, Financial Times)
    -ESSAY : The Greater Danger : Perhaps the most interesting question today in foreign policy is not what we do about Iraq,   but what we do about North Korea. (NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, 1/11/02, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE : Bush says Afghanistan just the beginning, warns Iraq and North Korea on major weapons (RON FOURNIER, November 27 2001, Associated Press)
    -ARTICLE :  N.Korea Says in 'Full Combat Preparedness' for US (December 9, 2001, Yahoo!)
    -ESSAY : The Korean Nuclear Crisis: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Retrospect: The Case of North Korea (Catherine B. Wrenn,  Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Jan.-June 1994)
    -ESSAY : The Korean Nuclear Crisis (Robert Perkinson, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Jan.-June 1994)
    -ESSAY : The North Korean Nuclear Challenge: The Post-Kim Il Sung Phase Begins (December 1994, United States Institute of Peace)
    -ESSAY : Cut North Korea some slack (David Wright, March 1999, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
    -ESSAY :  Where the Cold War never ends (Bruce Cumings, Jan/Feb. 1997, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
    -ESSAY : Jimmy Carter (Leon V. Sigal, January/February 1998, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
    -ESSAY : How Much Plutonium Does North Korea Have?  (David Albright, 1994, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
    -ESSAY : What North Korea wants (Peter Hayes, 1993, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)