U.S/Russian Negotiations and Getting to Yes

“This is not a negotiation,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken solemnly declared at a press conference during his recent meeting with the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva. He went on to say that during their meeting each side merely presented its position, making a distinction between just presenting one’s position and a negotiation. Following previous meetings between the two sides in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna, Blinken was apparently only trying to put forward what was possible to negotiate and what was not. In other words, he articulated what were “non-starters” or non-negotiable.

But isn’t presenting your position on what is non-negotiable part of negotiations? Just as 100,000 Russian troops on the eastern border of Ukraine are part of the negotiations, Blinken’s statement about non-starters is part of the general negotiating process.

The meeting in Geneva was part of a classic negotiation at the highest levels with much at stake. Ever since Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton published Getting to Yes in 1981 after establishing the Harvard Negotiating Project, negotiating has become a big international business. The book has been translated into 35 languages. Paul Meerts of the Clingendael Institute and the Swiss Robert Weibel among others spent years training diplomats in negotiation in the newly independent countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Negotiation simulations regularly take place in the private sector as well.

That is why Blinken’s statement is so puzzling. He and his colleagues in the State Department are more than aware of the Harvard Negotiating Project. I would not be surprised if negotiation simulations about Ukraine are taking place in Foggy Bottom right now. And reports that “NATO has announced it is sending additional ships and fighter jets to existing bases in Eastern Europe, as well as putting extra troops on standby, as tensions escalate in Ukraine” are part of countering Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. Like chess players – grandmasters we hope – both sides are moving pieces. But instead of a flat board with limited pieces, this negotiation involves press conferences, troop movements and many other dimensions.

The issues in the Russian/U.S. talks are about the freedom for Ukraine to decide its political future as well as the larger politics of European security. The Russians are asking for written guarantees that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO and that NATO expansion eastward will stop; the Americans are trying to forestall a Russian incursion into Ukraine by arguing for Ukrainian independence and the potential membership in NATO of any country that wishes to join and is accepted.

In a larger sense, both the Russians and Americans are lobbying for their future spheres of influence in Europe in the post-Soviet area.

Instead of military clashes, both sides, for the moment, are putting forward different types of arguments. The Americans are arguing that an independent Ukraine has the right to decide which alliances it wishes to join. The Russians are arguing that it is unacceptable to have NATO troops and missiles on its border, just as the Americans objected to Soviet missiles near its border in Cuba in 1962. Russia feels uncomfortable with U.S. troops and missiles on its borders; the United States feels comfortable with troops and missiles containing Russia on its borders.

The two sides have agreed to continue negotiations. That is already very positive and shows willingness on both sides to talk, although diplomatic sceptics are arguing that Russia is buying time while it carries out troop deployment along the Ukrainian border and in Belarus.

The Russians have asked for written answers to their demands. They are trying to pin down the United States about future NATO membership as well as missiles and troop movements on their border. They obviously feel slighted that the supposed oral promise by James Baker that NATO will not enlarge has been broken.

The final object of Getting to Yes is to “show negotiators how to separate relationship issues from substance and deal with the latter by focusing on interests, not positions; inventing options for mutual gain; and using independent standards of fairness to avoid a bitter contest of will.” None of the objectives of mutual gain are moved forward by publicly declaring what is non-negotiable.

As Americans watch the National Football League season build up to the Super Bowl, the idea of “win-win” or “mutual gain” will not be in the forefront of reports on the current talks.

Whatever happens in the negotiations, journalists and experts will analyze who won and who lost. The Cuban Missile Crisis is presented as a major victory for the United States because Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba. The fact that President Kennedy removed U.S. missiles from Turkey – the proportional response to Khrushchev’s removal – is less publicized as well as the promise not to invade Cuba.

Mutual gain is not in the American ethos. Mutual anything goes out when obsession with who wins and who is Number One dominate. A good negotiation is based on empathy. In this case, the view from Moscow is crucial. Russian troops on Ukraine’s border are a response to NATO troops and missiles in Russia’s close neighborhood. Americans should not forget how the Monroe Doctrine established the U.S.’s sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. Understanding that reality should be the basis of getting to yes.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.