Unless you’re the best negotiator in the world, you could probably learn a lot from Dr. Henry Kissinger’s negotiations with China in 1971. I decided to read the transcripts (now declassified) and teach you the negotiating strategies I was able to absorb from this secret meeting.
This is the first part of a multi-part series.
July 9, 1971
The People’s Republic of China and the United States had met 136 times for almost 16 years, and made no progress on negotiations. At the core of their conflict was China’s insistence on the removal of the U.S. military presence from neighboring Asian countries and the U.S.’s insistence on addressing every other issue first.
People’s Republic of China Premier Zhou Enlai and United States of America Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger meet in person for the first time.
After some pleasantries, Dr. Kissinger opens with his prepared notes.
In these notes, Kissinger stresses the equality he seeks between the U.S. and the PRC. He discards ideology as a decision-making tool, and emphasizes that reality should ultimately decide which policy decisions are correct.
Afterwards, I learned these were cornerstones of Kissinger’s practice of the realpolitik philosophy. Realpolitik is “The study of the powers that shape, maintain and alter the state is the basis of all political insight and leads to the understanding that the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world.”
Kissinger explains to Zhou that he is authorized to make promises and they will actually be kept. This is Nixon’s accomplishment, really. Zhou immediately understands that no one’s time will have to be wasted at this meeting, he is not just meeting with middlemen who have no power.
Kissinger continues to describe the issues of importance between the U.S. and PRC. First and foremost, the issue of Taiwan. Kissinger doesn’t just describe it, he directly quotes Zhou. Zhou can see that great weight is placed on China’s precise wishes around Taiwan, and care has been taken to ensure there is a meeting of the minds.
Second, Kissinger describes the second most important thing to China – the Indochina conflict. At this point, if I were Zhou, I would be pretty excited at the future potential. Here is a man who clearly understands what is important.
Kissinger assures Zhou the U.S. will not collude with foreign powers against the PRC, and expresses an intent to create a secret and secure channel to communicate with the PRC government. This signals a desire to continue relations indefinitely, and places the PRC in a position of importance in the U.S.’s eyes.
I took these lessons from the first part of this meeting:
- Be a decision-maker or send a decision-maker, don’t negotiate with middlemen.
- Understand the other party’s issues, make them your concerns too.
- Send credible signals that you place importance on the other party’s issues.