The Odd American View of Negotiation
The fallacy of asymmetry in the American exceptionalist view of negotiation gets exposed when other parties issue reminders of how negotiation is really a two-way endeavor. Members of the Iranian majles did so this week with a bill co-sponsored by a majority of that legislature's members. “At the moment, the negotiating team is facing excessive demands from the United States,” said the chairman of the national security and foreign policy committee. “The bill is being introduced with the aim of supporting the negotiators,” he said, “and to protect the red lines drawn up by the supreme leader.” The bill then stated demands regarding some of the remaining issues regarding international inspections, research and development, and the timing of sanctions relief. The majles members probably know as much about rug merchandising as do legislators in any other country, and it is unlikely that their bill betokens any failure to understand the need for compromise. The measure instead is a message being sent to their counterparts in Washington that two can play the same game and that no one issued an exclusive license to the United States to draw red lines.
The give-and-take of negotiation serves at least a couple of functions that parties on both sides of any issue would be smart to exploit. One is that this aspect of negotiation is a form of information gathering, in which the parties feel out what the other side cares about the most and cares about less, and thus where within the bargaining space the most mutually advantageous deals can be struck. Making a particular concession might, of course, be a dumb move, but it might instead be a prudent response to having found out more, through the negotiation process, about the other side's preferences, objectives, and fears.
The give-and-take also means using concessions to get concessions. However distasteful some Americans may find this sort of trading, it is a fact of negotiating life, in international diplomacy as well as in other negotiating situations. Good negotiators recognize that, which is why they begin with “original goals and statements” that they fully expect they will not adhere to rigidly.
The American exceptionalist demand-and-pressure conception fosters misunderstanding of these realities. And this failure of understanding can lead to blowing good opportunities to use diplomacy to the fullest to strike bargains that advance U.S. interests.