What Kissinger Teaches Us about Negotiating with Russia

What Kissinger Teaches Us about Negotiating with Russia

As the United States works to develop a coherent strategy toward Russia, the lessons of the Kissinger and Reagan period suggest a good place to start in our current negotiations is with serious engagement with Russia on specific nuclear risk-reduction measures.


What occurred is what frequently happens in human and international relations—there was a failure to realize shared interests in a complex, evolving context. In this case, there were serious players in the United States who disagreed on fundamental issues. Gorbachev repeatedly put forth a grand vision for a new European security order, which found considerable support in Europe and with many in the United States. But there was ultimately no agreed-upon grand strategy in Washington for a new world order—certainly not of the kind Henry Kissinger would have preferred. Looking back in 2018, Strobe Talbot, a former deputy secretary of state and a key supporter of NATO expansion at the time, says that the United States pursued what appeared to be immediate national interests but he now admits the possibility of a question regarding its ultimate wisdom: “Should we have had a higher, wiser concept of our real interests that would require us to hold back on what many people would say is our own current interest?”

We cannot change the past, but we can take actions now that may help overcome mistrust and heal broken relationships. Politicians are not in the habit of acknowledging failure, even partial responsibility for bad outcomes. But there is always a potential high-value move for politicians to give voice to mutual respect and acknowledge what is widely agreed to be positive regarding the other side. In the field of negotiation, we say, “Respect is low cost and high value.” President John F. Kennedy endeared himself to Russians for generations when, in his 1963 “Strategy for Peace” speech, he acknowledged the great victory of the Soviet Union in World War II: “No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the course of the Second World War.” Kennedy acknowledged the trauma, the dignity and achievements of the people in the Soviet Union and offered respect on behalf of the American people—a speech that gave impetus to concrete action—the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty two months later.


Today, it could have a positive impact in Russia for a major U.S. figure to acknowledge a great historic achievement: the people of Russia overturned the Soviet system without bloodshed and faced down a massive quandary: the wholesale reform of their political, economic and social system. This was a challenge of an order of magnitude rarely—if ever—matched in history. And any expectation that the process would be anything other than difficult, including successes and failures, was absolutely unrealistic. The Soviet legacy of centralized power and corruption would continue to have a negative effect on the new Russia. And Russia never had any period resembling Western democracy in its thousand-year history.

Likewise, if an American leader were to sincerely and publicly acknowledge that both sides bear responsibility for the current crisis, it might assist to create a context to build a working relationship where the United States and Russia could once again realize shared interests and engage in historic nuclear arms control and reduction agreements. To be politically acceptable on the domestic front, it would need to be done together with a clear statement of areas of disagreement with Russia, as has been done in the past by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. In his 1963 speech, Kennedy acknowledged the Soviet Union for its heroism in WWII, its achievements and its advancements in space. But he also pulled no punches regarding U.S. disagreement with Soviet socialism. Similarly, Reagan left no doubt about his views of the Soviet system while he expressed his support for Gorbachev, his reforms and his vision to end the Cold War.

THIRD, WE must take the right approach when pursuing strategic negotiation on nuclear risk reduction with President Vladimir Putin. Kissinger’s success in his breakthrough agreement on détente in 1972 was achieved with a clearly defined strategy and prioritization of U.S. national interests. Kissinger’s greatest ability, in the view of the authors of Kissinger the Negotiator, was his ability to continually “zoom out to his strategy” and “zoom in to his counterpart” to bring both views into alignment, bring the macro and micro together to advance core interests. The challenge today is, first, to formulate an executable strategy toward Russia and keep that in focus while negotiating with Putin. Putin, Kissinger argues, operates “on the premises of Russian history,” and is focused on advancing Russian national interests. He is not going to integrate on U.S. terms.

The very first lesson in Kissinger the Negotiator warns against viewing negotiation mainly in terms of persuasive, interpersonal dealings. This poses a major problem for the current U.S. president. Donald Trump’s performance in negotiations with Putin, many argue, has been a classic case of a people-oriented negotiator who lacks a strong strategic and analytic sense. Trump has exhibited a belief that bluster, force of personality, charm, a proclaimed ability to read people, persuasion and improvisation can bridge historical and political differences and compensate for lack of preparation.

Kissinger specifically worked to get to know his counterparts’ psychological tendencies, their personalities, their styles and their personal histories—and used this understanding to advance the larger strategy. In Kissinger’s negotiations with Rhodesian president Ian Smith, Kissinger managed to have what Smith himself considered a very good relationship, even as Kissinger pushed him out of office and ended white minority rule. Trump has been criticized for demonstrating his understanding of Putin’s perspective by simply affirming that he heard what he said and that he believes “he means it.” On the issue of election meddling, Trump has stated: “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”

To succeed in negotiations with Putin, his counterpart, or at least that person’s team, needs to understand the man and have a genuine awareness of Russian history, culture, economics and politics. The United States needs a consensus on a strategy that is more than isolating Russia or trying to wait out Putin.

AS THE United States works to develop a coherent strategy toward Russia, the lessons of the Kissinger and Reagan period suggest a good place to start in our current negotiations is with serious engagement with Russia on specific nuclear risk-reduction measures. Whatever other priorities we choose, we must not lose sight of the scourge of nuclear weapons, of a war that “cannot be won and must never be fought,” and the escalating threat today of a nuclear catastrophe through blunder, miscalculation, accident, which could be a civilization-ending cataclysm.

The field of negotiation offers concrete steps, never easy in a complex, already embittered political relationship as we have in U.S.-Russian relations today, to further shared interests and agreement on what we cannot afford to get wrong.

Bruce Allyn is Senior Fellow and Affiliated Faculty at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Image: Reuters