The Problem with Americans Negotiating

The Iraq Study Group report highlights something that deserves better treatment than it receives in our political/media system: the problem with Americans negotiating for anything.

Basically, Americans look at negotiating with Iran, Syria or anyone else the same way they do business deals: the negotiators go in, they apply whatever skills they have at “doing the deal,” but they get the deal done. Failing to do so results in the perception that the negotiations were a failure, and thus the negotiators are failures. This is a tag no American can stand to be stuck with. People in other cultures are just as keen in “getting something done” in negotiations. But they approach the problem with two very different perspectives than Americans do. The first is a longer view of time than Americans have, which isn’t saying much since Americans define the “long term” as after lunch. The second is that most people outside the U.S.–especially in non-Western cultures–put a higher degree of value on relationship developing first before they get down to business.

The reason for the second is simple: without the imposition of the legal and social system that exists within the U.S., they start with a complete lack of trust for the opposite side. That trust has to be developed, which takes place with the development of a relationship. If and only if and when that relationship is developed–and that can take a lot of time–substantive negotiations can begin. It’s easier for foreigners to walk away from a deal for the reason that “they can’t trust these people” than it is for Americans.

We found this out in arms negotiations with the Soviets. The Americans were under higher pressure to “get the deal done” than the Soviets were, which automatically strengthened the Soviets’ position. Only Ronald Reagan managed to bring himself to realise that he couldn’t trust the Soviets and thus curtail negotiations with them until his own position was stronger. The memory of this deeply influences George W. Bush, which is why he is adverse to starting discussions with Iran and Syria.

A more productive approach would be to have a meeting in a venue where concrete results weren’t expected. In an American context, this means a golf course. Let’s say that Bush invites Ahmadinejad to Medina G&CC near Chicago. Since the clubhouse looks like a mosque, Ahmadinejad would think he was winning up front, which would make him overconfident, a besetting weakness of him. But on a golf course the two could size each other up face to face, watching as each other deals with the ups and downs of the game and each other. Then Bush could figure out how he might like to proceed based on what he saw himself rather than something stupid his advisers might come up with.

This example is a little lighthearted but my intent is to illustrate the importance and possibility of relationship building before serious haggling begins. It may take time, a lot more time than Americans are used to giving such things these days. (This wasn’t always the case in the past.) But it would be time well spent. My Sudanese imam friend used to tell me that, when his mother went to market, she would haggle so hard with the vendors that he would become embarrassed. We’re entering a region of expert negotiators. We need to show some wisdom ourselves.

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