Political Negotiation and Beyond: How (and How Not) to Make Threats

In a political negotiation, the temptation to issue a threat to try to induce compliance can be strong. But threats need to be carefully planned—and issued as a last resort.

By — on / International Negotiation

political negotiation

What do you do when the other party won’t give you what you want in negotiation? If you’re U.S. president Donald Trump, there’s one tactic you’ll employ almost every time: Make a threat.

Trump is the only president in U.S. history to rely so heavily on threats in political negotiation and beyond, according to Gettysburg College professor Shirley Anne Warshaw, an expert on presidential decision making. Trump has threatened to have former secretary of state Hillary Clinton arrested, fire special counsel Robert Mueller, rewrite libel laws to punish his perceived adversaries in the media, revoke a license from NBC, and withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, notes Peter Baker in the New York Times. To take some international negotiation examples, Trump has followed through on threats to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies and to pull out of the Paris climate accord and the nuclear deal with Iran.

In international negotiation and political negotiation, threats can be particularly risky. If leaders fail to follow through on threats, other leaders learn they can likely do what they want without repercussions. If leaders do follow through, they risk escalation, retaliation, and conflict. Either way, threats often accomplish little of substance, as recent negotiation cases in the news illustrate.

Walls and Other Borders

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised at rallies to get Mexico to pay for a border wall with the United States. How? By threatening to cut off the roughly $25 billion that Mexicans living in the United States send to family members in Mexico each year, a move of questionable legality. Once in office, Trump dropped that threat and tried to persuade Congress to fund a wall.

Two years later, with record numbers of migrants fleeing Central America, Trump threatened to close the southern border. Mexico could head off this catastrophe, he said, by keeping Central American migrants from crossing its own southern border and taking in asylum seekers rejected by the U.S. immigration system.

The threat alarmed many U.S. businesses, given that $1.7 billion in goods and services cross the Mexican border daily, along with 500,000 legal workers, tourists, and others. Under significant pressure, Trump backed down.

Threats and More Threats

In May 2019, Trump threatened to impose punishing import tariffs on Mexican goods if the Mexican government didn’t take new steps to stem the immigration crisis.

In negotiations with Vice President Mike Pence, Mexican officials promised to deploy the nation’s new national guard to the Guatemalan border and to allow asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their U.S. legal cases were resolved, but refused to agree to grant the United States the power to reject those who had not first sought asylum in Mexico.

“Everyone very excited about the new deal with Mexico!” Trump tweeted, backing down from his threat. But as the Times reported, Mexico had made the same promises in secret talks months before. In fact, the plan was already underway. In reaction to this story, Trump hinted that yet another secret agreement was in the works, a statement Mexico denied.

A Dysfunctional Pattern

The Times’s Baker summarized the president’s approach to difficult challenges in political negotiation and other realms: “When the goal seems frustratingly out of reach through traditional means, threaten drastic action, set a deadline, demand concessions, cut a deal—real or imagined—avert the dire outcome, and declare victory.” The pattern accepts the appearance of progress as a substitute for actual progress toward goals. When goals aren’t being met, the process repeats. Trump’s pattern conveys that his threats can safely be ignored or addressed with hollow promises.

How to Make an Effective Threat

When you haven’t been able to negotiate solutions to tough problems in a political negotiation or other type of negotiation through collaborative leadership, a threat can help break through impasse. The best negotiators craft threats as follows, according to Adam D. Galinsky and Katie A. Liljenquist:

  • Prepare to follow through in the event of noncompliance. Wise negotiators recognize that no one will heed their threats if they routinely back down from them.
  • Carefully craft the threat to satisfy both parties’ interests, rather than delivering it rashly under a cloud of emotion.
  • Give the other party a way to save face while meeting your demands. If they do give you what you asked for, don’t gloat; express gratitude.
  • Express unambiguous consequences of failing to meet your demands. The more precisely you convey your expectations, the easier it will be for the other party to comply.

How effective have you found threats to be in international negotiation or political negotiation?


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