Book Review: Great Negotiations

Great Negotiations
By Frederik Stanton
Westholme Publishing, 297 pages, $26.00

In early 1776, Thomas Paine argued in Common Sense against compromise between the American colonies and regal George III, King of England. Warning American Patriots and Loyalists about the violence that would come without their ability to set things right for themselves as an independent republic, Paine said, “That degree of pride and insolence ever attendant on regal authority, swells into a rupture with foreign powers, in instances, where a republican government, by being formed on more natural principles, would negotiate the mistake.” Although the colonies declared independence in July, by the end of the year the situation had worsened so much that Paine described it as “The times that try men’s souls.” But it was also when Benjamin Franklin landed in France, ready to negotiate an agreement to end America’s Revolutionary War with characteristic brilliance.

Fredrik Stanton begins “Great Negotiations” with a depiction of America’s founding negotiator at the French Court. Franklin was famous as a scientist, inventor, philosopher, and, most importantly, a shrewd businessman, making him ideal for America’s negotiation, derived from the Latin negotium, meaning business (neg-, not + otium, leisure). Taking advantage of England’s adversarial relationship with his host country, Franklin proposed an American trade agreement with France. At the heart of his negotiating strategy was what President Richard Nixon later described as one of his own guidelines for negotiation: “Never give up unilaterally what could be used as a bargaining chip; make your adversaries give something for everything they get.” Franklin’s bargaining chip in negotiating trade with France was the possibility of Americans making a unilateral agreement with England, thus designing a framework for breakthrough with trilateral negotiations. Less than fourteen months after his arrival, Franklin had turned France into a powerful ally to end the Revolutionary War on America’s terms, signing the Treaty of Alliance that forbade either party to broker a separate peace with England and recognizing among the powers of the Earth what the Declaration of Independence described as “the separate and equal station” of the United States.

The strengths are many in “Great Negotiations,” which describes eight key negotiations chronologically. Promising a better understanding of “the powerful role great negotiations have played in the course of history,” Stanton delivers. He narrates each episode with painstaking detail, showing readers what each party brought to the negotiating table, the risks associated with failure, obstacles to success, and how the obstacles were overcome. A great example is in Stanton’s treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, successfully resolved with breakthrough negotiations and on which Stanton justifiably focuses much of the attention on President John Kennedy’s reliance in an Executive Committee (ExComm), entrusted for internal assessment and decisions related to external velocities driving the crisis: the American response to discovering a Soviet plan to place nuclear missiles on an island 90 miles from the American shore.

National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy informed President John F. Kennedy of the discovery over breakfast on October 16, and the president immediately assembled an ad hoc crisis-management team. Known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm, the group’s fourteen members included the national security adviser, secretaries of state and defense, director of central intelligence, attorney  general (the president’s younger brother Robert), and a handful of other senior officials whose judgment and intellect the president respected.

However, the book’s attention to detail may also distract from understanding the bigger picture of practical applications for the principles applied to each negotiation. An easy solution to this relatively minor problem could be the addition of an epilogue to summarize such principles in future editions.

Stanton has an obvious passion for his subject, a field he studied at Columbia, before serving as an election monitor for the United Nations in the Balkans as well as in former Soviet republics. Unlike most books about diplomacy skills, “Great Negotiations” benefits a wider audience than typical business readers by the strength of Stanton’s experience. The result is a thoughtful recapitulation of well-known events from a unique perspective.


Fredrik Stanton, Great Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World (Yardley: Westholme, 2010).

Alan Taylor, introduction to Common Sense, by Thomas Paine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), vii-xxii.

John Simpson, ed., Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Joseph P. Pickett, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Richard Nixon, The Real War (New York: Random House, 1980).

James C. Humes, Nixon’s Ten Commandments of Statecraft: His Guiding Principles of Leadership and Negotiation (New York: Scribner, 1997).

Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant, Breakthrough International Negotiation: How Great Negotiators Transformed the World’s Toughest Post-Cold War Conflicts (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

John Keegan, The Mask of Command (New York: Penguin, 1987).


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