Barack Obama is giving a great example of effective negotiation in Ukrainian crisis.
In the press conference held last Tuesday, the 25th of March of 2014, he played with a double scenario, highlighting USA and NATO “B plan”, in case of a Russian escalation, but without closing the door to negotiation and dialogue.
Basically Obama underlined that both USA and NATO will not tolerate further aggressions if perpetrated to NATO members and that they have the power to go into a confrontation with Russia, not only on the military side, but also with economic and financial sanctions, military sanctions, and sanctions against Russian international engineering projects.
He made clear his “BATNA” (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) because after the uncertain and weak European responses to the crisis, the Russian perception of the “western block” alternatives could be very low, meaning they could underestimate the possibilities of a EU & USA reaction.
From there, after having shown his power and the possible bad consequences of a conflict escalation in the crisis, he indicated a way out of the conflict through political negotiation of all parties involved, underlying how Ukraine offered to start negotiation with Russia.
In the Cuban missile crisis, back in 1962, Nikita Khrushchev adopted the same negotiation strategy: in the height of the crisis, in that crucial night of the 24th of October 1962, he sent to President Kennedy 2 messages, the soft one stating that if Kennedy promised USA would not invade Cuba, He would take out of Cuba the strategic war heads that had been carried there on a Russian ship, basically a message proposing a negotiation of the crisis.
On the second message, which was the official one, Khrushchev expressed to Kennedy the Russian power and his “BATNA”, saying that if USA had invaded Cuba Russia would have confronted the Americans with a massive military power.
Basically this approach can be assimilated to the approach of those lawyers who first file a law suit, to show the other party they are in the position of doing it and though they have a solid legal case, and then they propose to negotiate, from a stronger position indeed.
This strategy is all about empowering his own options and alternatives to a negotiated agreement; in negotiation theory this concept is resumed in the BATNA theory: you must always know your best alternative to a negotiated agreement to be able to negotiate effectively, and if you don’t have very solid alternatives you should create them, before starting to negotiate, as a negotiator with no alternatives will be very weak in the process.
Moreover, Obama knows Putin is in a delicate situation now, but he cannot back up from what he started or lose the positions he earned otherwise his image to the eyes of Russian citizens will be spoiled; for this reason he is offering Russian president an honorable exit strategy which will save his reputation and image in front of the world: a negotiated solution of the crisis in which the decision won’t be imposed by USA, the historical Russian rival, or by EU, the strong Russian neighbor, but it will be left to the democratic vote of Ukrainian citizens, whom, Obama is sure, will want to have both a strong relationship with Russia and European Union.
Offering to the other negotiator an honorable solution, which will preserve his/her image in front of the conflict stakeholders, in this case Russians from Crimea, is a key issue to success in any negotiation, otherwise there will be no deal; Obama knows this very well, and for this reason he made very clear that there is no chance that Crimea could come back to Ukraine.
He also underlined, answering to those journalists who were asking him questions on a supposed weaker American power in the international arena, that a country which has power, knows how to manage it and behaves on the basis of international law and fairness, doesn’t need to invade its neighbors to convince them of the goodness of its positions.
From this he went on to say that if Russia needed to invade Crimea to show its strength means that is not so strong as it’s trying to show. By saying this he is basically pursuing a double objective: balancing parties’ power in negotiation, showing that Russia is not so powerful as everybody believes, and bringing the game back to objective criteria, such as international law and democratic votes, so that the crisis doesn’t evolve in a power struggle but keeps in the fairness field, in which Ukraine can negotiate much better.
Linking the negotiation process to objective criteria and principles is something every good negotiator should always do, as negotiating on those premises will always produce a fairer outcome and will avoid that the more powerful party could take advantage of its power to blast the other.
Obama is basically following the main guidelines of effective negotiation applying them from his role in the game that could be defined as a “mediator role”.
- Empowering your own options and having a clear BATNA, that the other party doesn’t underestimate;
- Never interrupt dialogue and communication with the other party, always keep the door open to negotiation;
- Stick to principled negotiation and objective criteria, in this case international law and treaties;
- Offer to the other negotiator an honorable outcome of the dispute.
Well done Mr. President!
Mr. Stefano Cardinale – Partner and co-founder