Autonomous Mind kindly gave a link and supporting comments to my recent piece about Negotiation Training. And, via Twitter, he asked for More on the Carrot/Stick negotiating paradigm. So, here it is.

The psychology of diplomatic negotiating is a vast, interesting and almost unanalysed subject. A couple of years ago I joined a course for FCO new entrants. The otherwise sensible trainers led off the Negotiation part with this PowerPointed assertion:


–   to maximise interests

–   to reach agreement

Really? This is an odd way to put it. Do the Chinese/Russians/N Koreans think that a key aim of negotiation is to ‘reach agreement’?

Hell no. They want to WIN, or failing that win as much as possible. Negotiation and ‘agreement’ are simply possible methods to get there.

So is another outcome – negotiations crashing in failure – that shows steely resolve, as the Poles this very week have been keen to demonstrate within the EU.

In other words, very often a negotiation is not about what it says it is about. On the surface it is about EU Emissions Targets, or Global Climate Change, or new World Trade regimes. In substance it is more likely to be about who decides what, this time round and on into the future.

This explains why the psychological factors are so important. Look at this magnificent negotiation:

There is so much happening here. The two negotiators are weighing up bluff, mutual determination and hard facts. You can guess who wins on all scores.

Or try the superb scene in the Incredibles, where Mr Incredible has been captured by baddy Syndrome. Mr Incredible breaks free and grabs Mirage, Syndrome’s lissom assistant, threatening to snap her in half if he is not released:

Mr. Incredible: It’ll be easy, like breaking a toothpick

Syndrome: [chuckles] Show me.
[after a tense few moments, Mr. Incredible lets go of Mirage]

Syndrome: I knew you couldn’t do it. Even when you have nothing to lose! You’re weak! And I’ve outgrown you

Amazing writing. It hits the negotiating nail bang on the head. Most negotiations are all about one thing: who in fact is weaker?

A dramatic real-life example:

Here’s what actually went on late last Friday night, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors. Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between Gordon Brown and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi…

What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself.

The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors”.

This shows that Sticks and Carrots as a metaphor for diplomatic negotiation are just not up to the job. In this case the Euroweenies and President Obama were keen to get a deal: lots of plausible Carrots (in the form of Western money), with a rather distant Stick (we’re doomed without a deal, but only in 100 years’ time).

The Chinese ruthlessly played on this situation to belittle President Obama personally, just to show who was boss.

I think that President Obama made a serious mistake by staying in the room, once it was clear what the Chinese premier was up to. Whatever puny and fleeting headlines he needed (and got) by sticking grimly to the core aim (for him) of getting some sort of outcome were much less important than showing Beijing that that was the sort of behaviour up with which he would not put.

In other words, Obama took modest gains on the day, but lost serious ground when it came to his credibility in negotiating with China well into the future. Both sides went home knowing that China had won on substance and powerplay presentation.

Look too at this example of American diplomatic über-bully Dick Holbrooke winding up my former boss Pauline Neville-Jones:

Back in Moscow in 1995 after dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence I watched as he sat on the sofa studiously winding up my boss Pauline Neville-Jones with some not-so implicit sexistly patronising insinuations.

Pauline of course did not rise to the bait, but he knew that she would not do so and enjoyed watching the spectacle of her containing her annoyance, while she in turn seemed to know that he was enjoying that spectacle and so inwardly seethed all the more.

Here the ostensible subject of the negotiation was the fascinating issue of the design of Bosnia’s post-Dayton money. But what in fact was happening was Holbrooke deliberately using the issue to wind up PNJ, who knew that he was doing just that.

He knew that she knew what he was doing, so did it all the more. She knew that he knew that she knew, and so found it all the more exasperating, but of course she did not want to show it. And so on. All seething just beneath the surface as they exchanged barbed remarks about the way the UK’s pound coins have different markings.

Then we have … the Russians:

Russia typically wants to project strength as an end in itself. Part of any negotiation is balancing incentive-carrots with pressure-sticks: “If you accept our position, we guarantee you a positive outcome. If you refuse, we’ll make sure you get a very negative outcome”.

Russian negotiators aim to neutralise that approach by conveying a very different proposition: “It doesn’t matter how much you try to pressure us. First, we can withstand more pressure than you can possibly exert, or even imagine. Second, whatever you do to hurt us, we will do something far worse to hurt you.”

 The whole point of Moscow’s time-honoured diplomatic negotiating style is to project a sense of depersonalised inexorable doom for anyone or anything which gets in the way of whatever Moscow currently wants.

This can be countered, of course, by hanging in there very tough: some of it is bluff, and Russian diplomacy can be as inept as everyone else’s. But the very fact that the Russians set about their business in this way helps frame issues and likely outcomes on their terms and projects toughness/determination. A handy way to start.


As previously noted, the reason why Carrots and Sticks work (or don’t) in diplomacy has little to do with their ‘objective’ size and plausibility.

It’s all much more ‘subjective’. It’s about how the person with the carrots/stick is seen by the supposed target, and even more about how both the carrot-sticker and the target perceive themselves and what they believe the other one believes about the problem, the balance of forces and how this situation plays into other situations.

All of which explains why Gaddafi is still there and NATO’s bombing campaign looks oddly … lame. Going right back to President Obama’s unwise Cairo speech, Washington and the wider ‘West’ have been unclear what they really wanted.

Indeed, the then President Putin found the then PM Tony Blair exasperating when they met: charming and smart as Blair was, Putin kept pressing him in private to say what he really wanted. And answer came there none.

Moral: if you don’t know what you really want from a negotiation, don’t be surprised if you don’t get it.

Oh, and don’t be surprised if other more single-minded people tend to prevail.