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Should We Fear to Negotiate or Only Fear to Negotiate Badly?

In an Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times — Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed — Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins suggest that John F. Kennedy’s worst two days negotiating should be a lesson to Barack Obama.

The lesson?

That “sometimes there is good reason to fear to negotiate.”

Agreed.  But only if we add the word “badly.”

The Op-Ed piece itself describes JFK’s ill-fated negotiations as follows:

Although Kennedy was keenly aware of some of the risks of . . . . meetings [with one’s adversaries] . . . he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.

Senior American statesmen like George Kennan advised Kennedy not to rush into a high-level meeting, arguing that Khrushchev had engaged in anti-American propaganda and that the issues at hand could as well be addressed by lower-level diplomats. Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, had argued much the same in a Foreign Affairs article the previous year: “Is it wise to gamble so heavily? Are not these two men who should be kept apart until others have found a sure meeting ground of accommodation between them?”

But Kennedy went ahead, and for two days he was pummeled by the Soviet leader. Despite his eloquence, Kennedy was no match as a sparring partner, and offered only token resistance as Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy . . .  Khrushchev used the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting to warn Kennedy that his country could not be intimidated and that it was “very unwise” for the United States to surround the Soviet Union with military bases.

. . . American diplomats in attendance, including the ambassador to the Soviet Union, later said they were shocked that Kennedy had taken so much abuse. Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was “just a disaster.” Khrushchev’s aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed “very inexperienced, even immature.” Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” The Soviet leader left Vienna elated — and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.

Kennedy’s assessment of his own performance was no less severe. Only a few minutes after parting with Khrushchev, Kennedy, a World War II veteran, told James Reston of The New York Times that the summit meeting had been the “roughest thing in my life.” Kennedy went on: “He just beat the hell out of me. I’ve got a terrible problem if he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts. Until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him.”

Flawed Setups Make Negotiation Tactics at the Table Irrelevant or Dangerous

As the Times article states, at least one seasoned diplomat expressly opined that the issues Khrushchev was raising at the time of Kennedy’s first diplomatic mission could as well (or better) be addressed by lower-level diplomats as by the President.  Kennedy’s own Secretary of State  suggested that ground work needed to be laid before the leaders of the “free” and the Communist worlds met for the first time.  Kennedy ignored this sage advice and learned one of the most important lessons of his presidency — to seem weak was as bad as being weak.

As Lax and Sebenius caution in their excellent treatise 3-D Negotiation, the negotiation ‘setup”

means acting to ensure that the right parties have been involved, in the right sequence to deal with the right issues that engage the right set of interests at the right table or tables at the right time under the right expectations and facing the right consequences of walking away if there is no deal.  Before worrying too much about tactics, the 3-D setup architect works hard to optimize these elements — the scope, sequence, and choices about the process itself — in which interpersonal dealing will play out.

If the setup at the table isn’t promising, the 3-D negotiator doesn’t merely resort to bullying . . . or turning up the empathy and personal charm . .  . Instead, he or she takes action away from the table to reset the table more favorably.  The 3-D Negotiator understands that a bad setup makes tactics at the table more or less irrelevant — and that a great setup, conversely, makes good tactics all the more effective.  In fact, it can help the tactician achieve otherwise impossible results.

3-D Negotiation at 12-13.

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

This is the sentiment — from JFK’s inaugural address — that Thrall and Wilkins suggest we question in light of Kennedy’s ill-fated initial encounter with the far more experienced and cannier Nikita Khrushchev.  This caution, however, would unnecessarily throw out diplomacy’s baby with negotiation’s bath water.  If these wise words need any amending whatsoever, let them be:  Let us never negotiate out of fear.  But let us fear to negotiate badly.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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