An author defends his decision to write a new book celebrating Henry KissingerHistorians in the News
tags: Henry Kissinger, Kissinger the Negotiator, James K Sebenius, R Nicholas Burns, Robert H Mnookin
... In Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level,James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin examine a number of Kissinger’s diplomatic moves, from Vietnam to China to southern Africa. As the authors write, “Our purpose is neither to judge the man nor set the historical record straight. Instead … we seek to learn as much as possible from Kissinger about this vital subject. If successful, we will have extracted actionable insights into the art and science of negotiation at the highest levels.” (Kissinger wrote the foreword to the book.)
I recently spoke by phone with Sebenius, who is now a professor at Harvard Business School after a career spent advising private companies on negotiating strategy and serving in the federal government. (Burns worked as a diplomat; Mnookin is the chair of the program on negotiation at Harvard Law School.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the continuing controversy over Kissinger’s Vietnam diplomacy, whether public servants should be judged on the humanitarian consequences of their policy choices, and just how much credit Kissinger deserves for “opening” China.
Isaac Chotiner: What was it about Kissinger’s skill as a negotiator that you thought was worth writing about?
James K. Sebenius: When I looked at the great negotiators and the secretaries of state, I was really struck by how effective Kissinger was, and I was a little put off by all the controversies. After all, I was a college student during Vietnam and so forth. And yet, he seemed to have an approach that if you looked at the opening to China after so many years, and you looked at détente in the middle of the Cold War, and the first nuclear arms deal. … When the ’73 war broke out in the Middle East, he negotiated the disengagement accords among Egypt and Israel and Syria. And then, of course, got the U.S. out of Vietnam through the Paris negotiations [in 1973]. I had not really put those together. When we interviewed him, I was really struck at the sophistication of the approach.
The successes and certainly the failures suggested that there was a lot to learn. We didn’t really want to weigh in. There was no comparative advantage in joining the group that either says he’s terrible or that he’s wonderful. There are plenty on each side of that. But the question was, what could we learn? The short answer was: a lot. ...
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