Dean’s talk in Negotiation Class

S Aufrecht

Dean Kishore Mahbubani spoke for an hour in our Negotiation class. (I wonder what he thought of the donut box labeled “For the lower class”?)

I spent 33 years of my life in diplomacy. You cannot learn to swim on land; you cannot learn negotiations unless you’ve done it yourself. I’ve attended virtually every major meeting, UN, non-aligned, G77, African reform.

When the negotiations begin, I hear four voices in the room. The most important voice in any room is the voice of power. You almost never, ever get a level playing field in negotiations. Anecdotes from UN security council. Make sure you have the support of your own country or you will lose your job. That’s power. If the US decides it will take a position, you can’t change it.

The second voice is the voice of reason. I’m pleased to inform you that that can also work. There was one issue on which Singapore fought the United States over the bizarre issue where Ambassador Holbrooke, in an effort to persuade the US Senate to pay UN outstanding dues, made a deal with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Holbrooke would negotiate lower fees (from 25% to 22%) and then the US would pay up back dues. But the UN rates are set by percentage of global GDP, with a ceiling of 25%. US went to rich countries, Japan, etc, Singapore. Various countries agreed bilaterally to pay more, but Singapore refused. Dick Holbrooke used every method possible to twist my arm. I would go to parties and other ambassadors would ask me, “what did you do, Kishore? Holbrooke is shouting at me.” I stayed calm, stayed cool, used the voice of reason. Amazingly enough, it worked. Holbrooke went to the ambassador of Namibia for support, “Singapore does nothing for you, you have to support us on this,” and the ambassador of Namibia said, “actually I heard Kishore’s arguments on this and they are quite reasonable.”

The third voice is the voice of justice. Sometimes power doesn’t get you everywhere. If you use your power too far and go against some principles of justice people will not go along with you. The case of Palestine. Just before the UN opens each year, a US ambassador goes to every country’s ambassador and tells them the US position on every expected issue. The US mounts a massive lobbying effort to prevent countries for voting for resolutions that criticize Israel on the Palestine issue. Despite the fact that there’s no countervailing force lobbying against America on this issue, countries still look at the contents of resolutions and say they are fair and vote for them. Why? Considerations of justice. They believe there will be no peace in the Middle East unless the Palestinians get a homeland. The Palestinians have also learned not to be too extreme in the language. The example is the resolution equating Zionism with racism; it passed in the General Assembly but created such a powerful backlash that it was formally rescinded in the General Assembly. The US won that on the merits of the case.

Another example is Cuba. Every year about a hundred and seventy or eighty countries vote for a resolution that the sanctions on Cuba are unfair.

I use the US as an example but it was the same with the Soviet Union. The general assembly also defied the Soviet Union on some resolutions of justice.

The fourth voice, the most important one for small countries, (lots of guessing in class, hint: starts with a C). It’s something you have and I’ve seen the South African ambassador use it. Classmate answer: Crime? (dean heard “cry”, but we all laughed either way). A classmate finally guesses: Charm.

I was amazed to discover in 1984 that the single most effective ambassador was from Uganda, Olara Otunnu. He was then only 29 or 30. He was charming.

When I go into a room to negotiate for Singapore, I tell myself I only have three weapons, reason, justice, and charm. Every negotiation I chaired ended successfully. I had some close shaves. Once the US delegate, at the last minute, said he had new instructions from the Treasury. I lost my temper and scolded him in front of everybody, told him to go back and tell the Treasury we cannot accept these terms. I was bluffing.

most negotiations end at 3 am or 4 am; people are exhausted and say, let’s settle. Once they came to be at 3 am (the Holbrooke issue of dues) and said, we still need one million dollars, which was much less than they had asked for. I called Singapore, and they said okay, and that’s how it ended.

The world’s best negotiator by far, he has brought to a close two big multinational negotiations, he lives in Singapore, his name is Ambassador Tommy Koh. He completed the Law of the Sea negotiations, he also completed the negotiations for the prep com before the conference of the environment.

Q: Those with power, like the United States, do they always just use power? A: In my two stints, I had to deal with completely opposite people from the US. First, Jean Kirkpatrick, was just pure power, didn’t bother with reason or justice. She was one of the most difficult people I worked with, was succeeded by Vernon Walters. He was the most charming ambassador. (Joel’s comment: Interestingly, the third google hit for Vernon Walters is a eulogy from, of all people, Iraq uber-hawk Michael Ledeen, who recounts, “the interviewer gave him a great question. ‘Tell me, General, in your diplomatic activities, did you ever use flattery? And if you did, how did it work?’. Walters answered in a nanosecond: ‘Anyone who thinks flattery doesn’t work obviously has never had any.’) He called me, he was 75 and I’m Asian and thirty-something, so of course I’m going to his office, but he insists and comes to my office. By the time he came I was ready to give him anything he wanted.

There was a big fight in the UN when the US wanted to invade Haiti. They knew China would oppose. Madeleine Albright asked how we avoid a Chinese veto. Cameron Hume—he wrote a book by the way—said, we’ll pay a visit on the Chinese ambassador. US ambassadors hate to call on other ambassadors.

Holbrooke; really a good negotiator, really tough. John Negroponte is the exact opposite of Dick Holbrooke, very nice, very helpful. I can tell you it is the ones who are charming who are far more effective.

Q: How did you come to be an ambassador? A: by accident. I was bonded to the government after college, they assigned me to the foreign ministry. I tried to resign after a year but ended up spending 33 years there.

Singapore has always been negotiating with Malaysia. How much does the historical baggage play a role in constraining the results? A: The Singapore/Malaysia relationship is a neurotic one. After getting married and divorced, we still live in the same house. There have been successful negotiations; we have reached agreements. Neighbors have trouble. You watch the US-Canada, US-Mexico, Malaysia-Indonesia negotiations, all very difficult.

Personal relationships matter a great deal. Why is Asia at peace? Golf. I achieved many of my negotiations on the golf course. It’s a completely different environment, you’re making bets, playing around. I would usually wait until the end of the course, have a couple of beers, and ask, “why are you giving us so much trouble on this thing?” and we would settle.

N.B. one anecdote was removed at the Dean’s request.