This review was posted in 2002.

Review of Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict, by Roger Fisher, Elizabeth Kopelman and Andrea Kupfer Schneider. Harvard University Press, 1994, 151 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

In his Renaissance classic, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli explained how a would-be leader can get and keep power.

Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project and his coauthors had a better idea: showing leaders how to resolve international conflicts in a peaceful way. The Harvard Negotiation Project, which Fisher heads, is involved in the practice of negotiation as well as its theory and teaching.

The authors of Beyond Machiavelli do not see diplomacy as just a game for professional diplomats. "International conflicts are not being handled as well as they might be," they remark with vast understatement, adding that "we will consider ways that people both inside and outside of government--CEOs, scientists, lobbyists, academics, journalists, diplomats, church leaders, university students--might themselves influence international events."

The only problem with their list of possible actors is that it seems too limited and class-based. How about waitresses, truck drivers, farmers, child-care staff, factory workers and mechanics? Intelligence and creative ideas are by no means limited to the college-educated.

To influence foreign policy directly, of course, one needs a world leader or diplomat to advise--or a third party who might pass suggestions on to such leaders. The authors do not give many specifics on how to gain access to the powerful, but they believe that it can be done through "carefully chosen intermediaries." (A few case studies on this point would have been helpful.) They advise each reader "to step into Machiavelli's shoes by targeting an individual decisionmaker--a 'prince'--and developing ideas that might persuade that decisionmaker to make a better choice on one issue."

They show how to analyze international conflicts, determine what prevents their resolution, and come up with practical and creative ways to start negotiations or move them forward when they are stalled.

They deal with the substance of negotiations only by way of illustration. Their key emphasis is on process: how to use it to reach a settlement that the parties can live with. They offer many useful ideas, as well as helpful charts such as "Putting Ourselves in Their Shoes" and "Contrasting the Message Intended with the Message Sent."

The charts, the authors say, are simply tools, and most are "just organized common sense." They also note that it's important to have a variety of tools: "...if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem will begin to look like a nail."

When describing how one's adversaries understand a dispute, it's helpful to show a draft description to them and to make revisions based upon their comments. "Demonstrating that we understand their point of view may allow them to move beyond defending it, freeing them to listen more openly to our concerns and our arguments." And, in any case, "we ourselves benefit from better understanding their thinking."

They warn against the tendency to focus mainly on the public statements and demands that each party to a conflict makes. That often hardens positions and leads to "a contest of will in which an objective becomes not to budge." Instead, we should focus on the underlying interests of each side, which may be met in creative ways. The authors suggest that this approach might resolve India's Sikh-Hindu conflict.

In trying to influence decisionmakers, it is important to understand the possible consequences to them of agreeing to any proposal. In a chart of important consequences, "Will I lose power?" and "Will I be criticized?" are the first questions, while "Is it the right thing to do?"--alas, but realistically--is rather far down the list. Other key questions include "Is this a fading opportunity?" and "What do we lose by waiting?" There are useful charts on the way Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein perceived the demand that he withdraw from Kuwait in 1991 and the way a paramilitary Serb may have viewed the United Nations call for a cease-fire in 1993.

Understanding things from the decisionmaker's viewpoint can lead to developing "a new choice--a choice where the net consequences of saying yes will appear more favorable than those of saying no."

Other words of wisdom include:

  • "Can the parties communicate in confidence, or must they always play to the grandstand?"
  • "Are there mechanisms in place to check whether what was understood is in fact what was intended?"
  • "Parties sometimes find that once their interests have been met on all or virtually all other issues, an accommodation can be found on a previously irreconcilable difference."
  • "In order to move beyond a continuous search for one-shot solutions, we will want to improve the mechanisms for dealing with conflict. If we are tired of bailing water, maybe it is time to fix the pump."

The authors suggest that brainstorming--unofficial sessions in which everyone is encouraged to toss out new ideas, with no criticism allowed until later--can be an effective way of breaking a logjam in negotiations.

They stress the importance of practical advice, of making proposals that are "yesable." People in conflicts, they note, often "fail to convert their goal into a decision they would like an adversary to make" and fail to suggest "an action that someone could take tomorrow." They recommend drafting decision announcements that leaders could be asked to make. Not only can this help us understand the decisionmakers' views; if well done, it can help persuade them to accept a proposal because it shows "how it could be persuasively presented to others."

Instead of "concession hunting" (pressing each side for concessions from its official position), it may be better to "change the choice" by listening carefully to both sides, drafting a new plan, then revising it according to their reactions. Use of this "One-Text Process," the authors say, led to the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

Beyond Machiavelli might have been strengthened by more such success stories. But it is a concise and useful book for both professionals and amateurs, one that should be kept at hand as we study--and try to help resolve--bitter and enduring conflicts around the world.

The authors write with measured optimism; they believe that "it is always possible for one person with a good idea to change the world--a little." Yet they also realize that stepping outside of narrow boxes and limited thinking may lead to magnificence. They recall the Italian story of three stone-workers who were asked what they were doing. The first explained that he was 'chipping these stones to make them just the right size.' The second said simply, 'I am earning my wages.' But the third responded, 'I am building a cathedral.'

National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.