Feature Interview: Dr. Richard Haass in Conversation with STAIR

Negotiation is one of the most fundamental tools of statecraft, and is as important today as ever before. With ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, continuing violence in Israel/Palestine and Eastern Ukraine, and brewing tensions in the South China Sea, policymakers need to be able to more effectively conduct, mediate, and facilitate bilateral and multilateral negotiations. Consequently, the challenge for academics must be to dive deeper into negotiation as a tool of statecraft, and supply the knowledge and insights policymakers require to successfully conclude negotiations. The hope is that, in the twenty-first century, more disputes will be resolved through agreements, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which recently put an end to the dispute between the P5+1 and Iran over the country’s nuclear programme.

George Kailas and David Hagebölling sat down with Dr. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, to discuss his personal experiences as a US negotiator and mediator, his thoughts on ongoing negotiations and crises, and how he believes academia should teach the art of negotiation to the next generation of policymakers.

STAIR: Our first question relates to your personal experience as a policymaker and as someone who has engaged in mediations and negotiations. When you were asked to mediate a crisis, or engaged in negotiations as a policymaker, you had a limited amount of time to prepare. How did you prepare for your role?

RH: You read everything from the statements of the various protagonists involved, whatever analysis you can get your hands on, produced either within the government or simply by smart observers. Early on, to get going, you immerse yourself in the realm of history. I often spent some time reading books on this or on previous negotiation to get a better understanding of what is a part of peoples’ intellectual and psychological DNA. You just want to know what people are bringing to the table. If you are in government, you would also read through cables and other things you have from relevant embassies; you also have access to intelligence, if that plays a role. I’d also go speak to people who have been involved. It’s always useful in the case of a negotiation to speak to your predecessors. So you are constantly updating your intellectual account.

STAIR: In one of your past interviews, discussing the role of mediators, you said that a mediator can only contribute to five or ten percent of a mediation’s success and that ultimately the outcome of the negotiation depends on the parties themselves. In this context, are there cases in which the mediator can play a larger role?

RH: I’ve written that I think the role of mediators is important, but rarely critical. What matters most in any negotiation is the willingness and the ability of the principal protagonists to enter into a compromise. Willingness is a question of their predisposition, while ability is often a reflection of the political situation; that is, whether they are strong enough to enter into an agreement that involves compromises, whether they see it as in their overall political interest to enter into an agreement. This is all another way of saying that in my experience, and I’ve been involved with Cyprus, I’ve been involved with India/Pakistan, I’ve been involved in the Middle East, and I’ve been involved in Northern Ireland, very rarely is the toughest part of a negotiation the actual content of the “deal.” That is often material that has been massaged for months, years, and decades. I don’t mean to dismiss it, but again, that’s usually the part of the equation that people focus on most. What is often far more significant is the willingness and ability of the critical actors to enter into a deal along those lines. And, when I wrote a book years ago about ripeness, that was the conclusion that emerged loud and clear from my analysis, and that was also the conclusion that emerged from my own work as a practitioner: More than anything else, it is these two measures of willingness and ability that most determine the outcome of a negotiation.

STAIR: One of our papers in the upcoming issue addresses how, in today’s world, there are more vehicles for conflict and dispute resolution than ever before, such as ad hoc fora, supranational organisations, regional organisations, among a number of others. In your experience, did having so many options available to mediators complicate or facilitate negotiations?

RH: Those types of vehicles are pretty irrelevant. Again, that is putting way too much emphasis on who is doing the mediation. Whether it is a supranational organisation, a government, multiple governments, or an NGO is secondary. What counts far more than who is doing the negotiation is, again, the willingness and ability of a protagonist to enter into an agreement. That said, one thing an outside party can do is affect the calculations of the conflict parties. You can do this with incentives, inducements, you can do it with rewards, you can also do it with threats. Depending on the situation, outsiders often have in their pocket factors that can influence the calculus of the protagonists. If a protagonist, for example, is worried about entering into an agreement, one of the questions is if you can give him some tangibles, maybe something on the economic side or political side that is unrelated to the agreement but which can help that actor survive politically or sell things. Or maybe it is the opposite. That you can let a person know, “look, you may not be thrilled with this package, but you should know that if you do not accept it, here is what we are prepared to do to you rather than for you.” So, that is where, depending upon the situation, governments or other outside parties can often influence the calculation that one of the principal protagonists will bring to the table. Again, however, it doesn’t particularly matter if it is the representative of the UN, or a regional organisation or a government or an NGO. What matters is the essence of the situation and what factors, if any, this outsider can bring to shape peoples’ calculations.

STAIR: Another one of our authors argues that, over time, it is harder to find common positions in negotiations. Yet at the same time, we see today how the great powers were able to reach an agreement on, for example, the Iranian nuclear deal. In your experience, do you believe that coming to common positions has become more difficult or easier over time?

RH: The short answer is neither. It all depends on the specifics. A lot depends on the desire to have an agreement. What mattered in the Iranian agreement was that, for different reasons, both the US and Iran thought an agreement was desirable compared to the alternatives. That is what made it possible. In the case of Syria, it is likely to take a long time for an agreement to emerge, simply because most of the parties involved are not yet prepared to put forward the sort of compromises that are required, and it is not clear whether the outsiders are willing to use the influence they have to force a compromise. Somewhat amending what I said, the one way things may have become slightly more complicated is that, because of this world we live in, there are now more third parties that can affect outcomes. If you have some dispute, it is not just the immediate parties to the dispute. You probably have far more outsiders, whether it is governments, organisations, rich individuals or NGOs of one sort or another. In Syria you have all sorts of terrorist organisations and militias. You have all of these outsiders who are in a position to affect things. Depending on the conflict, it is possible that the simple fact that many situations have more players than has been the case in the past probably complicates things and makes it all a bit more difficult. It also makes it more difficult if the governments or organisations involved are themselves divided, and if they are not able to speak with a single voice. In such situations, often those most involved in the dispute can play one side off of the other.

STAIR: As you alluded to, unfortunately, there are more current conflicts than just Syria and Iran. Of the crises that are currently ongoing, if you were involved, is there one in which you would do something differently perhaps as a policymaker?

RH: Well, in virtually every crisis that one can look at in the world, the key to success is rarely ever the substance of the deal. Rather, the key to success lies in influencing the calculations of the parties to the dispute. So, if your goal is to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily, that is only going to come about if China plays a major role, and puts economic pressure on North Korea. That would be the requirement. If you are looking at Syria, diplomats are unlikely to succeed absent one of two things. Either outsiders are going to have to change their calculations, meaning Russia in particular or conceivably Iran, or you have to see a different situation on the ground. Again, negotiations never take place in a vacuum. Negotiations always take place in context. So, often what will determine the ultimate fate of a negotiation is not the clever ideas introduced at the table, but whether you are able to shape the context in ways that alter the calculations of one or more parties to the conflict. In some cases it may take a shift in the military balance to create a context in which negotiations prosper. In another case, it may take sanctions or economic rewards. I cannot give you an all-purpose, one size fits all answer. All I am saying is that diplomats are not magicians. Diplomats tend to succeed or fail depending on the context. One part of the context is, as I mentioned, the willingness and ability of the immediate participants to enter into a compromise. The other is the alternative to an agreement, and whether the particular parties see themselves as better served without an agreement or feel pressured to have one. Ironically enough, what can determine the fate of diplomacy might be instruments other than diplomatic ones; it can be economic, military, or others.

STAIR: One of our writers poses a dichotomy in negotiations between peace and justice in the outcome of negotiations. In your experience, have you found there to be this dichotomy, that one is emphasised more than the other? Are the two mutually exclusive? Does this dichotomy exist at all?

RH: That is a complicated question. There is a difference between peace and justice obviously. Peace is easier to measure. Justice is by definition more subjective. To the extent that negotiations involve compromise to get to peace, it almost invariably means that justice was compromised. So, in most situations, I would put an emphasis on peace. But I do think that if you cannot address at least some elements of justice, it could very well mean that any peace will be short-lived. To put it another way, it is a derivative of the writings of someone like Henry Kissinger; in order for settlements to endure, you have to have not just a balance of power that can create conditions of at least non-belligerency, but you also want to have a sense of justice, what Kissinger called legitimacy. You want to have the parties buy into the agreement. You want to have them accept it even if they do not necessarily love every element of it. And the more an agreement is enforced not simply by a balance of power, but by a degree of acceptance, the more it is likely to prove resilient over the passage of time. But if an agreement is simply there because of a balance of power, and there is very little or no acceptance or sense of justice, if one or more parties feels their interests were ignored, that suggests to me that any agreement was essentially imposed because of conditions. That means the agreements will last only so long as those conditions remain in place, and that as soon as the balance of power changes, those who feel their core interests being challenged will change the arrangement. So, I think it is important in agreements to try to address questions of peace as well as justice, but I think by definition you can almost never have a situation where everyone feels an agreement is completely just. As a result, you get into this debate whether a particular agreement is sufficiently just. And to the extent it is seen that way, it is more likely to prove resilient.

STAIR: One of our last questions touches upon the relation between academia and practice. What is interesting about talking to you is that you have both participated in negotiations as a policymaker as well as worked as an academic, for example, as a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. What do you think about the way negotiation is taught in universities today, and, if you could change anything, what would that be?

RH: It is hard for me to answer this question. I work at a think tank, but not in academia. It has been about twenty-five to thirty years since I taught the subject at Harvard. So I do not think I am qualified to pass judgment on how negotiation is being taught. I would simply say that, to the extent the subject is taught abstractly, I would worry. And to the extent that it is taught by simulation, I think that would be healthy because I think that is an inevitable process in give-or-take quality,. But I do think, and my own writings have reflected that, that there is an important analytical component to negotiation. I wrote about it when I taught, and I try to practice it, but when you do a negotiation you have to make an assessment on ripeness, and you have to ask yourself whether the situation is ripe for the sort of agreement you want. And if it is not, you have a choice. You either have to shrink what you are trying to accomplish. You cannot be more ambitious than the context will allow. Otherwise, you have to figure out a way to modify the context, to basically make it more supportive of what it is you are trying to bring about. I think there is an essential place for analytics even if you are a practitioner. I do not know if, at Oxford or anywhere else, negotiation is being taught in this way. I hope so. And if it is, then I think it is useful in understanding why negotiations succeed or fail, and it also would be good preparation for would-be diplomats or mediators. However, if it is not taught this way, if it gets too theoretical, my instinct would be to question its relevance.

STAIR: Finally, for the interested reader, and for those who want to learn more about negotiation, in the sense you understand it, if there was one book you could recommend, what would it be.

RH: I would probably stay away from books that are preoccupied with techniques. There are an enormous number of books written on the techniques of negotiators, and I am skeptical because I think all of that is secondary, maybe even tertiary. I would focus more on analytics, on history. My favorite book for people going into the foreign policy world is the book written by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, “Thinking in Time,” which is about the use of history for decision-makers. I find this to be the most relevant book, which tries to take what is done in the academic world and apply it to the world of analysis and practical foreign policy decision-making. It is not explicitly about negotiations. Nevertheless, if asked to think of one book that non-practitioners should look at, in order to get a sense of how to connect the world of academia and the world of policymaking, I would probably start with Neustadt and May. A second book would probably be some of the work in the same area by an American academic called Alexander George, who wrote a series of works about bridging the gap between the two worlds. I am a great believer in reading case studies and histories about various negotiations. Before I did the Northern Ireland negotiation, I read books by George Mitchell and others about their experience. Anyone who goes to the Middle East would be foolish not to read Henry Kissinger, but also other people who have written more recently on the region, like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk. I think you would also be foolish not to read the work of recent practitioners. The only book I have written about negotiations is a book called “Conflicts Unending”, which was my attempt to develop a theory of ripeness, and to take five case studies (Cyprus, Northern Ireland, India/Pakistan, the Middle East, and South Africa) , and to try to show how an analytical framework could be useful for a real-world undertaking. Even though all the specifics have changed in every one of these cases, I think the basic template still applies.

STAIR: Dr. Richard Haass, thank you very much for speaking with the St. Antony’s International Review.


Dr. Richard Haass is in his thirteenth year as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, non-partisan membership organisation, think-tank, and publisher dedicated to helping people better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.


In 2013, he served as the chair of the multi-party negotiations in Northern Ireland which provided the foundation for the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. For his efforts to promote peace and conflict resolution, he received the 2013 Tipperary International Peace Award.


From January 2001 to June 2003, Dr. Haass was director of policy planning for the US Department of State, where he was a principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Confirmed by the US Senate to hold the rank of ambassador, Dr. Haass also served as US coordinator for policy toward the future of Afghanistan and as US envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process. In recognition of his service, he received the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award.


Dr. Haass has extensive additional government experience. From 1989 to 1993, he was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. In 1991, Dr. Haass was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for his contributions to the development and articulation of US policy during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Previously, he served in the Departments of State (1981-1985) and Defense (1978-1980) and was a legislative aide in the US Senate.


Dr. Haass was also vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, the Sol M. Linowitz visiting professor of international studies at Hamilton College, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. A Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Haass holds a BA from Oberlin College and Master and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University. He has also received numerous honorary degrees.


Dr. Haass is the author or editor of twelve books on American foreign policy and one book on management. His most recent books are “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order”, and “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars”.