America’s ‘Exceptional’ Negotiations

America has a strange idea about international negotiations: It makes demands and the other side must capitulate or face crushing penalties if not violent “regime change.” This strange attitude is threatening the Iran-nuclear talks and endangering real U.S. national interests, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

One of the unfortunate corollaries of American exceptionalism is a warped and highly asymmetric conception of negotiation. This conception can become a major impediment to the effective exercise of U.S. diplomacy.

Although the attitudes that are part of this view of negotiation are not altogether unique to the United States, they are especially associated with American exceptionalist thinking about the supposed intrinsic superiority of U.S. positions and about how the sole superpower ought always to get its way.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry takes a walk in a park between meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 8, 2013, that focused on limits on Iran's nuclear capabilities. (State Department photo)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry takes a walk in a park between meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 8, 2013, that focused on limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. (State Department photo)

The corollary about negotiation is, stated in its simplest and bluntest terms, that negotiation is an encounter between diplomats in which the United States makes its demands, sometimes expressed as “red lines”, and the other side accepts those demands, with the task of the diplomats being to work out the details of implementation. Or, if the other side is not going along with that script and acceding to U.S. demands, then the United States has to exert more pressure on the other side until it does accede.

This is markedly different from the rest of the world’s conception of negotiation, in which each side begins with positions that neither side will get or expects to get entirely, followed by a process of give-and-take and mutual concession to arrive at a compromise that meets the needs of each side enough that it is better for each than no agreement at all.

Americans’ domestic experience with negotiation has been only a partial corrective to their warped view of international negotiation, and that experience has become even less of a corrective in recent times. The United States has a long history of labor-management negotiations that have determined wages and working conditions of many Americans.

But it also was in the United States that there arose Boulwarism, an approach to labor relations named after Lemuel R. Boulware, a vice president of General Electric in the 1950s, consisting of management putting a single, inflexible, take-it-or-leave-it formula on the table and refusing to make any concessions to unions. Boulwarism was found to be an unfair labor practice, but with the decline over the past few decades of labor unions and of the significance of collective bargaining for American workers, it in effect has come to prevail in much of the American economy.

Domestic American politics have followed a similar trajectory. Once upon a time, give-and-take and finding compromises were the daily stuff of American politics, including as practiced on Capitol Hill. Now, in a coarsened and hyper-partisan environment, they are so rare as to be a news item when they do still occur.

What is now standard is the imposition of red lines, maybe called something else, such as litmus tests or no-tax pledges, and a focus on what kinds of pressure or extortion could achieve total defeat of the other side. Domestic trends, political and economic, thus have reinforced American ways of thinking about bargaining that have further entrenched the idiosyncratic and unhelpful American view of international negotiations.

A consequence of this view is to regard concessions and compromise not as necessary parts of negotiation but instead as a source of shame or a badge of weakness. We have seen this amid the flak the Obama administration is taking from its political opponents regarding its handling of the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Among the criticisms, as if this really should count as criticism, have been observations that the United States has not rigidly held to what may have been earlier positions and demands. This sort of flak is found, for example, in a recent letter to the President from Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker expresses dismay about how the negotiations have involved movement from the administration’s “original goals and statements,” and he voices “alarm” about reports of, you’d better sit down before reading this, “potential concessions” by the United States on some issues on which full agreement has yet to be reached.

The proper response to such statements is: yes, the United States has been making concessions, and the Iranians have been making even more, that’s called negotiating.

Americans may not like to think that they are in the kind of bargaining relationship one might be with a rug merchant, but a bargaining relationship may exist whether one party says so or not. Even Boulware was in a bargaining relationship with labor unions, despite trying to approach the issues at hand as if he weren’t. Inflexibility is an approach toward bargaining, though not necessarily a good one; it is not a way of making the bargaining situation go away.

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.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

21 comments for “America’s ‘Exceptional’ Negotiations

  1. Anonymous
    June 23, 2015 at 15:40

    Fact check — it was the US that was against blaming WWI on Germany and against imposing the harsh penalties, while correctly warning Europe of the likely consequences to lasting peace..

    • Tom O'Neill
      June 24, 2015 at 12:03

      George Kennan, who came to regret deeply the influence of his post-WW 2 “containment” proposal, pretty much sides with Julian here. He grants we abstained from endorsing the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, but he says the U.S. should have cared about the defeated nation of Germany much more than we did. In a sense, Wilson embodied what Julian and Pillar are writing about; when the world would not accept Wilson’s plan, he effectively abandoned Germany to the untender care of Clemenseau and company. Kennan says we Americans should have cared about the dismal and sometimes heroic struggles of the Weimar Republic to restore peace and order to Germany after WW 1, but that we decided instead–and at great cost to ourselves and the world at large–to leave the Germans to stew in their own juices.

      • Anonymous
        June 24, 2015 at 15:46

        As Julian described it as “American insistence on harsh terms” it might better be characterized as “America’s reluctance” — it was not America but others who “insisted” — an insistence which America gave into.

  2. Julian
    June 23, 2015 at 07:47

    American insistance on harsh terms for Imperial Germany after World War One (though France and Great Britain played a major role as well) was one of the reasons why the Fascists had such easy pickings, both in Germany and Italy.
    Their refusal to relent and the “alternative” between signing and continuing the war bred bitter resentment and only served to poison the young German democracy.

    Negotiations and treatise are all about compromising, trying to find out what the other side wants and how far each side will budge to reach an agreement.
    In US politics this ancient skill of international diplomacy seems to have vanished completely. Negotiating is not considered as diplomatic tact and skill, but as a sign of weakness. Compromising isn’t viewed as a sign of wisdom and long term thinking, but as betrayal and almost deliberate weakening of one’s own position. US diplomacy seems to have swung towards achieving short term victories in favor of long term stability.

    This mentality hails back to the founding days of the USA in the 17th century, during which Christian settlers believed that they were inherently in the right and that God was on their side. Ergo the natives were wrong and their opinion didn’t deserve to be respected or heard.

    The truly sad thing is that most western countries aren’t willing to stand up as a corrective to this form of “take it or leave it” diplomacy and will largely go along with whatever Washington dictates. Ironically Russian and Chinese politics are more civil and diplomatic than Washington’s “gung-ho” “diplomacy”. Without Russia stepping in as a moderator, there wouldn’t have been an agreement concerning Assad’s chemical arsenal or Iran’s nuclear program.

  3. Tom O'Neill
    June 22, 2015 at 23:10

    Really, a very fine article–very important if we are not going to head–Strangelove-like–into a final Armaggedon. Pillar does well to see this as an aspect of American exceptionalism. All nations have a certain national pride–it holds them together and is a source of morale. But ours is really quite special. We tend to think America is deeply faithful to the spirit of Magna Carta and that we were conceived in and operate on the loftiest principles of the Enlightenment (equality of all humans, observance of inalienable rights, careful practice of due process); but this isn’t the case. Far more consequential to our actual behavior is our Puritan heritage that tells us we are an Elect people, authorized by God to impose on others (starting with Native Americans along the Atlantic Coast) rules from which we ourselves are exempt.

  4. Steve X
    June 22, 2015 at 16:49


    You are so off base it is almost laughable. Do you not know that the US completely adheres to the standard that absolutely no small country should be bullied by a larger country??? Didn’t you hear Pres Obama and even the VP I believe make that clear statement? Case in point, our vehement defense of the tiny little Ukranian country being mauled by the Russian bear.

    Never mind the $5 billion in USAID that was given over years to foster a smooth transition from the Ukraine’s duly elected President to the Nuland favored mobs I mean democratic presidential candidates (Yats anyone?)

    The US Govt would never ever bully another country, its not in our nature! I demand a retraction!!!


    N. Korea
    Palestine (oh wait, there is no Palestine)

  5. Joe L.
    June 22, 2015 at 16:27

    My feeling is that the US’ “exceptional” way of thinking really needs to change otherwise the majority of the world will move away from the US. The US cannot be arrogant enough to believe that the rest of the world is not watching whenever it institutes “regime change” or violates international law by invading yet another country. I think that much of the world is tired of being bullied and all that it is going to take is a viable alternative to the western dominated financial system and you will see a shift because the countries of the world do not forget. China is already the world’s top economy according to Purchasing Power Parity and will be the top economy in Nominal GDP somewhere around 2020. Along with the rest of China’s BRICS partners, China is creating a BRICS Development Bank (which will be in direct competition with the IMF and World Bank) which will open this year plus it seems there are plans for an alternative to the SWIFT payment coming down the tubes and other organizations such as the SCO, AIIB etc. If the US, and the west overall, continues to try and bully other countries using sanctions OR trying to force IMF loans on poor countries (meanwhile forcing that country to privatize resources for western corporations to gobble up) then I think that will only push countries toward the BRICS alternatives in the future. At least this is what I believe, countries are only going to live under the US’ boot for as long as there is not a viable alternative – seems to me that China (and the BRICS) are creating that alternative right now.

  6. Anthony Shaker
    June 22, 2015 at 10:19

    The United States can try to impose its will all it likes in negotiations with Iran, Russia, China and any other country it does not like. But it faces the same basic dilemma of any predatary state: violence is a sign of weakness, not strength.

    Forget our brain-dead media journalism, because this is how the US now appears to everyone “out there,” whether friend or foe. The old American charm, puerile as it was, is long gone together with the Marine Hershey bars.

    True, military aggression and threats of violence can be gainfully employed, but only short-term for specific political ends. When they become ends in themselves, and when the only objective is to maintain collapsing hegemony, then the hegemon is merely a predatory state…with a very short life span, historically speaking.

    Arnold Toynbee desribed the pervasive militarization of certain past civilizations as their terminal phase. And we all know that America is not even a civilization, but the last cavalry that saved a bigger “Western” fraud (defined by the US, UK and France) after two historic collapses, Word Wars I and II, which cost nearly 100 million lives.

    The world has already changed, and whatever the US or NATO does will not alter the main course. From hereon, whoever sits in the While House at any given moment–Democrat, Republican or Angelina Jolie–has only one thing to figure out: what kind of landing they wish for: soft, hard or a final crash.

    So, let’s get busy. This fraudulent “Western” monstrosity has gone on far too long, a century and a half. But we live inside its belly and have a responsibility to break its ideological hold over our society and our future. Not through more violent revolution or rage. This decline is not apocalyptic in this sense–at least, let us hope not. History will simply bury the Atlantic cabal.

    Let us forget half-wits like Fukuyama, with his neoliberal “end of history” idea, and intellectualist demagogues like Huntington, with his chilling thesis about a “clash of civilizations.”

    Returning to history for the Atlantic states means that we have to start by accepting the unalterable fact that we have long lived in our human diversity, and that today have no choice but to protect it, along with the diversity of life that we need just to survive the next century on this jewel of a planet, this miracle of life!

    How on earth did it get this far? Have we learned nothing from our own horrors that we can heap similar horrors on a Syria, and let them engulf the Middle East? What demented minds concoct these schemes? There is a straight answer. They are not crazies but people like us. They push paper and sit behind desks. Once in a while, someone from our midst, a “whistleblower,” reminds us that we are being led by professional Pied Pipers…pipe-dream weavers!

    • Mark
      June 22, 2015 at 12:36

      I’m with you on all of that…

      And beleive the reason it all “got this far”, is because human nature and instinct dictate that we go throught the same cycles of greed and wealth disparity that eventually bring rebellion in one form or another.

      There’s a new potential despot born every minute, in our case, over time, corruption has removed safeguards out of the system while simultaneously making corruption systematic due precisely to what human nature is, along with the inability of whoever is in power to resist the temptation of abusing it. Over time, left to their own devices, the “ruling class” has everything stacked in their favor — just like now — and we’re all back to square one with an angry and resentful citizenry.

      Our Declaration of Independence commands that it is our “duty” as citizens to throw off any such tyrannical form of government.

      “So, let’s get busy. This fraudulent “Western” monstrosity has gone on far too long, a century and a half”.

    • Bob Van Noy
      June 22, 2015 at 12:45

      Well done Anthony, thanks.

  7. Joe
    June 22, 2015 at 08:23

    The failure of the US to negotiate either foreign or domestic policy is symptomatic of its failure to recognize anyone’s rights and interests, but those who have gained power by economic force. The US is not a democracy but an oligarchy, and that it shall remain for its failure to protect elections and mass media from economic concentrations.

    Aristotle noted that the tyrant over a democracy must create foreign enemies to rationalize its demand for domestic power, and to accuse its opponents of disloyalty. The tyrants of business have replaced US democracy and brought us unending war and domestic policies to ruin the majority. Notions of “exceptionalism” are just their propaganda rationales: they are purely selfish, and their economic war upon democracy is treason.

  8. Peter Loeb
    June 22, 2015 at 06:58


    Paul Pillar states with great lucidity the fallacy of US
    so-called “negotiating”, sometimes called by them
    “serious negotiations”. According to the US and
    its officials, if its negotiating partner(s) is not
    willing to accept all US demands and more,
    it is not involved in “serious negotiations”.

    Another example of this so-called “negotiating”
    is consistently employed by Israel with Palestinians
    and almost anyone else. There is no compromise
    or any such intent.Israel just says “Do what we say
    according to our rules, or else ! ” In the case of
    Palestine, this usually means very specifically
    “or else we will demolish you…again and again.”

    For the many reasons described in Paul Pillar’s
    excellent article above, I have always believed
    that there will never be any US deal with Iran. The
    US will give no concessions to what Iranians want
    most: lifting sanctions. In other words, the US
    is not involved in “serious negotiations”, is
    not “negotiating in good faith”.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  9. Tom Welsh
    June 22, 2015 at 06:00

    Thanks for your insightful explanation of this problem. To be brutally frank, though, it seems to me that the interpretation of “negotiation” that you describe is an inevitable result of Americans’ belief that they, and they alone, know the truth and are right about everything. Thus if anyone else differs from Americans in the smallest way, that is because they are wrong – and probably that is because they are evil. So they must be destroyed.

  10. incontinent reader
    June 22, 2015 at 00:15

    Wonderful article. For another one on diplomacy and our failed paradigm that is a ‘must-read’ see: “America’s Diplomatic Crisis” by Chas Freeman @:

    in this regard, why not take it a step further, and line up, identify, dissect and deconstruct the perps themselves- whether it is Henry K (even as he’s been slippery enough to keep his mug on one side and wump on the other), Mme. Albright, or Joseph Nye (‘the political science guy’), or Suzanne Nossel, or Anne-Marie Slaughter, or Hillary Clinton, or John Kerry, or Victoria Nuland, or Samantha Power, or Susan Rice (or her unrelated namesake, Condolezza), or Paul Wolfowitz, or John Bolton, or Richard Perle, or Douglas Feith, or Tom Donilon, or Leon Panetta, or Martin Indyk, or the present crew of apparatchiks and apparatchicks under Clinton, Bush and Obama not identified above- and of course Bill Clinton, GW Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and Joe Biden- or so many more of the neocon, neoliberal crew that is driving our country and its foreign policy off the cliff.

  11. John
    June 21, 2015 at 19:35

    It’s important to note, there’s a difference between demonstrating the legitimacy within a demonized view (something Consortiumnews and some others like to do), and throwing weight behind an irrational view (something that the government’s diplomats do from time to time). The former is noble, while the later is far from it.

  12. Mark
    June 21, 2015 at 17:18

    What are the chances international scofflaws can be trusted to honor any agreement or treaty?

    When was the last time the US was not in violation of international law for a period of ten years, including the last time five yesrs went by that the US was not complicit in Israels crimes and protecting Israel from their own crimes committed?

    If they haven’t already, the US is on the verge of violating the agreement not to bomb or invade Syria which was reached in 2013.

    Does anyone expect Hillary Clinton or any Republican candidate to honor any agreement Obama reaches with Iran after the 2016 election or will they give in to Israel’s plans?

    Propping up criminal right wing dictators in the ME and South America that are friendly to American interests can’t honestly be considered negotiating.

    Is it negotiating to blame Russia for the US having sponsored the 2014 Ukrainian overthrow to have a puppet regime installed?

    • Mark
      June 21, 2015 at 17:31

      The US is is firmly entrenched in the habit of committing international war crimes to begin “negotiations”.

      Not only crimes in international law but they commit domestic crimes in the US by propagandizing the public to garner support for the illegal wars they have a penchant for engaging in.

      Nobody trusts the US government — not the officials who are part of it — not the citizens they’re supposed to represent — and it seems, with good reason, no one in the world trusts the US government in words or deeds.

      What is the value of negotiating with an international terrorist crime organization?

    • Mark
      June 21, 2015 at 17:46

      My mistake, there are the criminal bankers on Wall Street that can trust the US not to prosecute them for orchestrating the biggest financial fraud in history — ongoing for years until it could no longer be hidden since 2008.

      Others corporate industries also rely heavily on the fact that unethical and illegal behaviors will pay far more than any final expense in fines while there is seldom any criminal prosecution for corporate illegalities regardless of how egregious or what it cost’s US citizens.

      • Joe Tedesky
        June 22, 2015 at 01:18

        You know how we should have “separation of church and state”, well we also could use “separation of business and state”!

        Liked your comment.

  13. Bob Van Noy
    June 21, 2015 at 14:40

    Great and timely Paul.

    “Or, if the other side is not going along with that script and acceding to U.S. demands, then the United States has to exert more pressure on the other side until it does accede.” (Cheney’s general attitude)…
    “process of give-and-take and mutual concession to arrive at a compromise that meets the needs of each side enough that it is better for each than no agreement at all.” (Statesmanship/Diplomacy)

    My take:

    The Dulles Brothers established this brutal method with their deadly combination of collusion between Banking,State Department and The Security State (The Deep State). Bringing us to this point of near total absurdity. Propaganda usurped the media and the free press and proved all too successful thus our present condition.

    We have needed , for some time now a Diplomatic Department or Department of Peace with the kind of aggressive staffing and funding that the Military has as a counterpoint. It should be The State Department but they have been off track for decades now. UC Davis has a department of International Relations, that is at least encouraging…

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