The Problem with Obama Negotiating

George Bush’s attack on Barack Obama’s idea of negotiating with the likes of Raul Castro makes an earlier piece, The Problem with Americans Negotiating, worth repeating:

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.

On the face of it, there’s no problem in negotiating with just about anyone.  But in a system where results–and preferably fast results–are considered mandatory, the pressure to cave is too great.  And, of course, if your objective is to cave–a distinct possibility in this case–then the need to stay at home is even more important.

Then again, as I suggested earlier, he could make a tee time…

Leave a Reply