An Interview with Master Negotiator and Former Governor Bill Richardson
On December 13, 1996, President Bill Clinton, in a ceremony at the White House, announced the appointment of Bill Richardson as United States Ambassador to the United Nations. A few days earlier, the congressman from New Mexico had used his diplomatic skills in a much less majestic setting.
Richardson was in a remote part of southern Sudan in a chief’s hut eating grilled goat. He was there to convince Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, a rebel leader opposed to the Sudanese government, to release three Red Cross workers he was holding captive.
Richardson has long traveled to faraway places to negotiate the release of Americans held captive by dictators and despots. While in the Clinton administration, he was referred to as the “undersecretary of thugs.”
Recently, the former two-term governor of New Mexico admitted unspecified involvement in efforts to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, both imprisoned in Russia. . The US government declared the couple “wrongfully detained”.
For many lawyers, negotiation occupies a disproportionate place in their practice. While Richardson won’t negotiate the nuances of a corporate deal or which driver got the red light, lawyers can still learn about closing a deal from the man who made the rides. -returns with a who’s who of tyrants, including Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and two generations of Kim in North Korea.
In a recent phone interview, 74-year-old Richardson shared a few pages from his playbook. He offers a much more comprehensive version in How to flirt with a shark. In this 2013 title, Richardson offers a world of lessons for lawyers in a behind-the-scenes look at some of his successful and failed negotiations.
US Women’s National Basketball Association basketball player Brittney Griner, detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom after the court’s verdict in Khimki, near Moscow, on 4 august. A Russian court found Griner guilty of smuggling and stockpiling narcotics after prosecutors sought a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence for the athlete. Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images.
“The Bad Guys Like It”
“President Clinton,” Richardson tells me, “was once asked at a press conference, ‘Why are you sending Richardson to all these dictators,’ and he said, ‘Bad people like him.’”
Clinton was serious. Richardson credits his success to the despots’ willingness to work with him. Despite Chávez’s strong anti-Americanism, the former Venezuelan president once told Richardson that he “was the only American politician [he] could really cope.
“I try to come prepared,” Richardson tells me. “You do your homework, you know your enemy’s desires, you know his sensitivity.”
Speaking of relations with North Korea, Richardson says, “You have to respect their culture. You must try to connect with them personally. You can’t give them State Department talking points about how they practice human rights abuses and torture. You don’t give them good, fancy speeches, but you’re respectful.
He adds: “You try to know where they are internally and mentally at the time of the meeting. You want to know what their current thinking is. The seasoned diplomat says you have to ask yourself, ‘Why did they agree with me? They must want something.
Richardson says he benefited as a negotiator from having lived “between worlds”, the title of his 2005 memoir. He grew up in Mexico City, the son of an American banker and a Mexican mother. Spanish was his first language.
” It allowed [me] appreciate cultures other than America, so when I was negotiating, for example, in Latin America with Fidel Castro and Maduro [Nicolás Maduro Moros, president of Venezuela], I would speak Spanish and that would create a better personal connection that could lead to a breakthrough,” says Richardson. “I generally believe that anyone who has an appreciation for other languages, cultures, ways of life, has an advantage as a negotiator, as an advocate.”
The 2008 presidential candidate also points to his experience in Congress, holding frequent town hall meetings, as a training ground for his later work. “My congressional district was very, very diverse. A large Hispanic community, a large Native American community, a large Anglo-Cowboy community, with a lot of land and water issues that needed to be addressed,” Richardson says. “Many times I would take officials with me and we would try to settle or mediate in the meeting itself. That led me to negotiate, to try to solve the problems.
Richardson’s foray into hostage negotiation happened by accident. “You could say I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he muses.
In 1994, Richardson was in North Korea as part of a congressional delegation related to the dismantling of the country’s nuclear facilities. There, a US military helicopter was shot down after flying over the demilitarized zone in North Korean airspace. One of the pilots died in the accident and the other was in captivity.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave Richardson his marching orders: Do not go home without Bobby Hall or the remains of David Hilemon. Richardson refused to leave and after two weeks the mission was successful.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t answer me, and I was going to end up a prisoner myself,” Richardson said. “Finally, it worked.”
“Hearing firsthand that I had helped an American reunite with his family is one of those good feelings that doesn’t fade quickly,” says Richardson. He has now had a side gig, which has led to five nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Richardson’s negotiations are sometimes atypical. Usually, “the negotiators are balanced, coherent and willing partners”. But for him, they are often “narcissistic despots and power-hungry tyrants who cared more about their own skin than their own country.” He says he’s sat “opposite some of the most unpredictable and irrational people on the planet.”
In 1995, Richardson was in Iraq trying to secure the release of two American contractors sentenced to eight years in prison for entering the country by mistake. Richardson, when meeting Saddam Hussein, crossed his legs, revealing the underside of his shoe – an insult in Arab culture.
It was involuntary. But the Iraqi president banged his fist on the table and stormed out of the room.
“I remember asking the Minister of Foreign Affairs: ‘Is he coming back? Am I grilled? “recalls Richardson. “He said, ‘He’s coming back, but you have to apologize. So Saddam came back. You know, he had these piercing eyes and he started staring at me. And I decided, well, I’m not going to apologize. I will be respectful. And I think he kind of respected that.
Many believe that the hostage trade is bad policy. It encourages America’s enemies to take more Americans as prisoners.
“Look, I disagree with that premise. You cannot be white like the lily and perfect like the lily. Something is going to have to be done,” Richardson retorts. “We have to support our Americans. We cannot leave the Americans behind, and there is often a price to pay. »
There are “no hard and fast rules” when it comes to trading, says Richardson. Nevertheless, the former ambassador has some fundamental principles he employs, ones that lawyers can apply to their own negotiations.
First and foremost, “You have to talk,” Richardson tells me. “Negotiation is about commitment. Communication is better than silence. Arguing, reasoning is better than obstructing. Yes, I agree, talking costs nothing, but you can’t afford not to talk to you. You’re not going to fix things just by insulting each other and not talking to you. My view is that you’re personally engaging.
Then, he says, “once you get your okay, take yes for an answer and take it quickly and walk away. Leave. Don’t let them guess.
“I’ve been criticized for saying that,” Richardson adds, “but it’s easier to deal with a dictator than to deal with a country that has rules and parliaments. If you connect with a bad guy, a dictator , you’ve made the deal, you don’t have to wait.
In some cases, says Richardson, “don’t ask for a yes.” Instead, “assumes a yes. Then just state it as fact and see if they object. If they don’t, “take it, it’s yours.”
Although negotiation is about compromise, don’t always demand one, advises Richardson. Instead, “invent the compromise together”.
Arriving in Sudan to secure the release of the Red Cross trio, rebel leader Bol demanded $10 million. “I started laughing,” recalls Richardson. “I said, ‘Forget it. Let’s have a meal and find common ground. And the middle ground was, I invented a compromise. I said, ‘Look, I just visited your health facilities. I just heard that your little girl died because you don’t have doctors here, you don’t have medicine. How about I bring you some Red Cross medicine and supplies? ”
In exchange for medicine, food and other humanitarian aid – and no money – Bol agreed to free the hostages.
These days, Richardson leads the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit organization that promotes global peace and dialogue by engaging with countries and communities not typically open to more formal diplomatic channels. The center’s activities include negotiating the release of prisoners and hostages held by hostile regimes or criminal organizations. It also offers training and advice to governments and non-governmental organizations in transition to democracy.
“I learned how to deal with bad guys,” says Richardson. But “my fundamental principle is that just because they’re bad guys doesn’t mean you can’t get a good deal.”
Randy Maniloff is an attorney at White and Williams in Philadelphia and an adjunct professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law. He runs the CoverageOpinions.info website.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal or the American Bar Association.