Recently, more than 1,600 international relations experts from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly rated Henry Kissinger, who served under former presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, the most effective secretary of state of the last half-century. In their new book, Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level (Harper, 2018), James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin offer the first cross-cutting study of Kissinger’s overall approach to negotiation. Here, Sebenius, the gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, shares key takeaways from the book.
Negotiation Briefings: Remind us of what Kissinger actually negotiated?
James Sebenius: He played central negotiating roles in many U.S. foreign policy achievements, including the opening to China after decades of mutual hostility, détente and the first nuclear arms control treaty with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, Egyptian and Syrian disengagement deals with Israel following their 1973 war, and the Paris peace accords with North Vietnam after years of bitter conflict (though the deal collapsed after two years).
NB: How would you describe Kissinger’s approach to negotiation?
JS: Kissinger is often depicted as a geopolitical grand master, dispassionately moving pieces on a global chessboard. He did, indeed, “zoom out” to the strategic level when negotiating but also “zoomed in” to the interpersonal: He was remarkably effective at reading counterparts and establishing rapport. We all know people who are comfortable at the strategic and analytic level but are not good with people. Others are people-oriented but not particularly analytic. As a negotiator, Kissinger continually zoomed in and out. With practice, negotiators of all kinds can become increasingly proficient at this powerful approach.
NB: In the book, you describe in detail a little-remembered negotiation involving Rhodesia where Kissinger’s approach achieved the “impossible.” Can you describe what happened?
JS: Toward the end of the Ford administration, major Cuban and Soviet incursions into Angola threatened to open up a new front in the Cold War, amid widespread predictions of a coming “race war” in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. Ian Smith, the leader of Rhodesia’s white minority government, swore he would never accept the principle of black majority rule in his nation; yet, through a complex series of intertwined negotiations—with no U.S. military involvement and little money—Kissinger induced him to do so. In return, moderate and radical black African states in the region effectively agreed to keep out any foreign troops.
How did he do it? He ultimately persuaded South Africa—that “citadel of apartheid” and vital military ally of what was then Rhodesia—to apply decisive pressure on its neighbor, even though if Rhodesia capitulated, anti-apartheid forces would—and later did—focus on South Africa. Why would South Africa ever go along with Kissinger’s plan? To simplify, Kissinger first secured American and British support for majority rule in Rhodesia, where blacks outnumbered whites by 22 to 1. He then painstakingly built an uneasy but supportive coalition of moderate and radical black African states.
Kissinger then highlighted South Africa’s increasingly painful international isolation, its sanctions-weakened economy, and the high costs of its regional military operations. To John Vorster, South Africa’s prime minister at the time, Kissinger stressed how playing a constructive role vis-à-vis Rhodesia could improve South Africa’s image in Africa and worldwide. Most critically, he persuaded Vorster that growing guerrilla activity in Rhodesia would inevitably impose militant black rule on the country. However, if South Africa pressed Rhodesia for a peaceful transition to majority rule, the odds of relatively moderate black leadership were much higher. Under South African pressure, Rhodesia relented in what was globally heralded as Kissinger’s “dazzling diplomatic feat,” though Robert Mugabe’s reign later devastated Zimbabwe.
NB: How could Kissinger’s strategies and tactics be useful for businesspeople?
JS: Both his diplomatic career and his lengthy postgovernment career, which has heavily consisted of advising corporate clients, provide insights. Our book shows how a “wide-angle lens” and game-changing moves away from the negotiating table can create space for a deal and enable favorable outcomes at the table; how careful sequencing, coalition building, and handling of potential deal blockers are keys to multiparty effectiveness; how to productively combine assertiveness and empathy; and how dogged persistence rather than blinding insights is often the essential ingredient for success.
NB: What lessons from Kissinger do you think the Trump administration would be wise to apply to its diplomatic negotiations?
JS: Many bedrock elements of Kissinger’s negotiations—carefully building credibility, orchestrating favorable alliances, ensuring that national leaders meet only when the outlines of the actual deal have already been worked out, etc.—might improve the Trump approach. Overall, Kissinger’s broader geopolitical strategy generally dictated which negotiations he undertook. In turn, his individual negotiations advanced his broader strategy. When I look at the Trump administration’s negotiations—regarding North Korea and Iran, with China, and so on—it is difficult to grasp the overall strategy into which individual dealings fit.