Tuesday, 10 September 2013

3 SoS, 3 Presidents and 1 PM: A negotiation masterclass

Set aside which side of the fence you sit on regarding intervention in Syria and think are there any lessons which can be transferred across to procurement?

I have already discussed lessons from the House of Commons Syria vote, so let’s ratchet up a gear and consider three Secretaries of State, three Presidents, one Prime Minister, and negotiation.

First a quick paraphrased catch-up. Terrible atrocities taking place in Syria. Almost impossible for the average ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’ to understand who are the good guys and the baddies in the Civil War. Evidence of chemical weapons having been used but no clear ownership of the smoking gun. The US President attributed blame to the Syrian President and announces a swift, short, sharp punishment is required to make clear chemical weapons cannot be used. While this was being discussed a team of weapons detectives were on the ground in Syria hoping to find the evidence (their verdict still awaited). US President looks for support in the proposed punishment beating. There is no evidence that that the US have been attacked in anyway, nor any Western country but to take the moral high-ground a missile aimed at the Syrian President’s lawn is deemed appropriate. The Russian President makes his lack of support for US intervention clear. UK decide some sort of Parliamentary Mandate is required but it is not yet gained. UN mandate is not yet received. Some petty point scoring with potential allies. The US President starts to look very lonely and decides he would be better with mandates from Congress and the Senate – not yet received. The US President is backed into a corner, the UK Prime Minister is backed into a corner, the Syrian President waits. In the meantime airmiles are built up holding a G20 summit, bringing some of the world's top politicians and their advisors together, fails to find a way forward.

So the scene is set to learn from the high stakes negotiation, very high stakes negotiation.

two Secretaries of State, namely, the UK Foreign Secretary and the United States Secretary of State. It has to be assumed that yesterday’s stopover in the UK by the US SoS for a cuppa and press conference with the UK Foreign Secretary had something to do with reinforcing the strength of the relationship between the two countries  - you will recall that the US SoS had recently reminded the world that France had supported the US in its War of Independence from team GB (an example of the petty point scoring). In the press conference the US SoS responds to a well aimed question asking; what could avert an attack, appears to be taken off-guard in announcing to the world’s media:
"... turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons in the next week ... but he isn't going to do it and it can't be done."
The question may have been a constructed ‘get out of jail card’ for the US President but we may never know but -  if it was, it was a mark of genius.

Enter the Russian Foreign Minister. Like a hawk, or rather a dove, the Russian picked up on US SoS off-the-cuff option and announced:
 "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country  would allow avoiding a strike, we will immediately start working with Damascus."
Then the Russian President provides an endorsement and the Syrian President basically says "yeah, let's give it a go".

An off-the-cuff remark and the US President saves face while the Russian President is seen as a facilitator as opposed to a blocker. In fact, in an even more bizarre twist the US President argues that had it not been for his threat of a strike the Syrian's would never have considered this option.

In the meantime, as they say, ‘time passes’. The idea of a swift, short, sharp punishment starts to lose momentum – indeed it becomes anything but swift and may even be forgotten about! 

Of course you may well ask why wasn't the option of placing the weapons under international control not suggested in the UK House of Commons, the G20 or indeed explored by the US.

So while the problem hasn't gone away we have some early lessons for negotiation:

  1. Don't back yourself into a corner by threats;
  2. If you do back yourself into a corner get out of it as quickly as possible - better to lose a skirmish than a war;
  3. Don't make it hard for your stakeholders to support you;
  4. If you cause offence with a partner, rebuild the bridges as fast as possible;
  5. Manage time as opposed to being held hostage to it;
  6. Avoid being entrapped into offers which may be picked up;
  7. Always look for innovative options which enable face-saving regardless of where they come from; 
  8. Fully explore options before saying, "that's it"; 
  9. Avoid making the other side look like a loser;
  10. Don't make 'promises' you can't keep.

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