Wise Negotiator

April 5, 2012
By Colleen Walsh, Harvard Gazette

The key to success for any secretary of state, according to James A. Baker III, is a rock-solid relationship with the commander in chief.

“You need a president who will support you, and defend you, and protect you even when you are wrong. I had that wonderful relationship with [George H. W. Bush],” said Baker, secretary of state from 1989 to 1992. “Nobody was going to get between me and my president.”

The statesman was at Harvard last Thursday to receive the Great Negotiator Award. The annual honor, created by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, recognizes individuals whose “lifetime achievements in the field of negotiation and dispute resolution have had a significant and lasting impact.”

During a program at Harvard Law School, Baker offered his insight and political perspective on his time as a senior government official for three presidents, a tenure peppered with delicate foreign negotiations.

Harvard Kennedy School’s Future of Diplomacy Project co-sponsored the afternoon event.

In a frank conversation with James K. Sebenius, Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and Nicholas Burns, Sultan of Oman Professor of the Practice of International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School, Baker outlined the complexities of his time as the chief foreign affairs official under George H.W. Bush. In the first of a two-part panel he fielded questions about his efforts to help unify Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Baker — who was also undersecretary of commerce for Gerald Ford, and secretary of the treasury for Ronald Reagan — acknowledged that the fall of the Berlin Wall caught many observers offguard. But if the U.S. government was surprised by the rapid dissolution of the dividing line that separated East from West in geography and ideology, it was far from unprepared, he said.

Baker’s tips on great negotiating included the importance of developing an understanding of “the political constraints,” on the person across the table. “If you can understand those, then you can work with them.”

Baker said the experience of running five presidential campaigns helped sharpen his negotiating skills, and that trust has been essential to his career. He recalled his relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and their policy disagreements.

“We respected each other, we liked each other. He was the one leader who would never leave. We held all our meetings with no note takers. … If you can build a relationship of trust with your interlocutor, you’ve got a lot better chance of making a deal.” read more

James A. Baker III pictured with James K. Sebenius (left) and R. Nicholas Burns.

(From L to R ) James K. Sebenius, Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School; James A. Baker III, secretary of state from 1989 to 1992; and Nicholas Burns, Sultan of Oman Professor of the Practice of International Relations.

Photo Credit: Kris Snibbe

“Nobody was going to get between me and my president," said Baker.

picture of James A. Baker talking

Photo Credit: Tom Fitzsimmons courtesy of Program on Negotiation


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