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Diplomatic Persuasion

diplomatic_persuasionHere on my desk is a smooth paperweight with the inscription: ‘DIPLOMACY – The art of letting someone have it your way’. Which is fine as a guiding principle for diplomats, unless it isn’t. Persuasion is fine if it works; but people selfishly tend to present their own ideas as well as listening to yours. A haggle ensues. If the haggle is grand enough, it’s called a negotiation.

The modern world was shaped by a number of major diplomatic negotiating sessions aimed at managing the results of ruinous wars started in Europe by Europeans. The world’s first major set-piece multilateral negotiation brought together 40 imperial states and 27 interest groups, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In 1815 came the even more magnificent Congress of Vienna, with more than 200 states and princely houses represented. In 1919, a mere 27 states took part in the Treaty of Versailles negotiations. And 50 states then agreed the basis for constituting the United Nations in 1945.

These days, scarcely a minute goes by without diplomats somewhere on the planet busily negotiating a myriad of topics. So by now we ought to know what diplomatic negotiation really is. Experts line up to enlighten us. For example, a paper by Ambassador Dr Ahmed Mokhtar El-Gammal at Cairo’s Institute for Diplomatic Studies explains how academic analysis of diplomatic negotiating has included game matrix and utility-curve models, noting wryly that ‘it sometimes becomes difficult to locate such concepts in the diplomats’ practice’.

The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has an imposing suite of UK-based and e-learning training courses for British diplomats. Some aim at improving skills (Diversity; One Team, Many Cultures; Communication and Assertiveness; Performance Management; First Aid); others look at thematic policy questions (Advanced Human Rights; Energy and Climate Security; Understanding US Foreign Policy; Contemporary Islamic Issues).

You would expect to find a strong bloc of FCO training courses on diplomatic negotiation technique. These are core diplomatic skills. The British are wily, efficient negotiators, so they must learn that somewhere. But you would be disappointed. There are, in fact, precisely… none.

This is interesting. It seems so at odds with what I was once told that Russian diplomats were taught at the start of their careers: ‘Never move to accept anything proposed by the other side, especially if you agree with it, without exacting the best possible price for changing position!’

How do British diplomats make up for this complete lack of systematic training in negotiation skills? In part they don’t. They are living on legacy reputation built up over decades when the UK closely shaped the rules of global order, and so could take power and influence for granted – it’s not hard to do well in negotiations if you have more power and influence than the other side.

On the other hand, new British diplomats are given significant responsibility from an early stage: tough learning-on-the job followed by years of gritty practical experience. Plus they enjoy a working culture based on unquestioned teamwork. Many foreign ministries do not work well in terms of  distributing information internally. Information is seen by officials as being all about their own status and personal power, to be guarded against all-comers.

In the British model, hoarding information is strongly discouraged – professionally discourteous and an obstacle to career progress. Facts and analysis flow freely and widely, almost independently of hierarchy. This creates new problems of its own, but it allows swarms of experts from the FCO and Whitehall to attack a problem from all angles and identify clever ways of incorporating negotiating ‘fat’ (scraps of concessions to be thrown out when necessary). UK diplomats thereby often enjoy a real edge in complex negotiations at the UN and in EU meetings in Brussels.

It also helps that the UK has cunningly organised things so that English is the planet’s main shared language (even if the Americans often muscle in on that one): you never go wrong by being the first party to get eloquent draft conclusions in English circulated around the negotiating table.

Sprawling and expensive set-piece negotiations have proliferated in recent times. More and more countries play on the global stage (welcome, South Sudan). Cheap airfares allow diplomatic delegations to roam the globe looking for problems to solve.

Good intentions are one thing – getting results quite another. An instructive example of spectacular negotiating failure was the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. Most attending nations agreed that urgent, collective and far-sighted action was needed to help reduce the risks of negative climate and environmental changes caused by human activity. Only a major negotiation involving the whole world could do the problem justice. What could go wrong?

Very few countries are big enough to make a serious practical difference on the vast issue of climate change by acting alone. Besides, no state wants to act alone. Why should its citizens make sacrifices if others aren’t prepared to make a credible contribution as well? But what contribution by whom is credible and meaningful? The climate bigwigs failed to solve that conundrum.

Meanwhile, for most countries the very fact of being a noisy voice in the process was far more important than shaping any specific outcome. The mass of participants hoped for a climate carrot paid for by someone else, and saw no reason to moderate their demands. They rightly suspected that any ‘new’ money for climate-related adjustments would come from existing development budgets, much of which would end up in the coffers of Western consultants anyway.

In short, the Copenhagen Conference had perverse incentive structures and duly slumped into disarray, every day more detached from respectable scientific and economic calculations. There was even the absurd spectacle of applause for presidents Hugo Chávez and Robert Mugabe ranting against ‘capitalism’ while enjoying generous European hospitality.

In the confusion, only one thing was clear: any final document would be cooked up between a small group of countries pursuing national interests. Number one among those national interests would be to get into that small deal-making group. So began the real summit negotiation on a very different subject: who can end up looking powerful?

This explains why at the end of the whole process President Obama found himself sitting round a table with the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa (four of the five BRICS nations). The best available result for the five participants at that meeting was to put down their own bold markers for global leadership, in a document notable because they – and only they – had agreed it. No other countries with something heavy to offer (or indeed any of the European hosts of the conference) were to be seen. Their ‘deal’ set some minimal headline goals, but had no legitimacy or binding force. After one final unedifying row, the conference ‘noted’ this accord and drifted sulkily homeward.

Amidst these machinations one special negotiation continued, namely a struggle for psychological pre-eminence between Washington and Beijing. China rejected any legally binding agreement and protected its ‘sovereignty’ from reliable outside verification. These hard-hitting Chinese tactics left Obama in a policy and presentational dilemma. At one point he and other leaders found themselves talking to a Chinese official after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stayed away from the discussions to show that any outcome would be on his terms alone.

The right move for Obama in terms of negotiating technique – and long-term substance – was to leave the meeting until Jiabao appeared. But the President didn’t want to return to Washington empty-handed after playing up the climate issue so strongly to get elected. He stayed put.

President Obama opted for modest gains on the day but thereby lost ground in a deeper US/China negotiation. Both sides departed knowing that Beijing had won that round, both on substance and on public powerplay presentation.

A dramatic psychological negotiation of a very different kind is playing itself out in Libya. This example again shows the tactical importance of knowing what you want – and caring about the outcome.

Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi knows what he wants: to stay in business. He also cares a lot about himself and his rule. By contrast, the goals of the NATO/Western forces attacking his forces are much less clear. Thus Gaddafi’s ability to absorb pain (which, needless to say, falls mainly on other Libyans) appears to exceed (for now) NATO’s willingness to deliver a ruthless knock-out blow. So it all drags on, with Libyan civilians as collateral damage.

All of which demonstrates one simple timeless proposition at the heart of diplomatic negotiation: don’t go into any negotiation without knowing the likely outcome. Putting it another way: if you don’t know what you want from a negotiation, don’t be surprised if you don’t get it.


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