Kissinger the Negotiator by James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin

Lauding Henry Kissinger is the primary purpose of Kissinger the Negotiator, which carries the subtitle tease, Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level (HarperCollins, 448 pp.; $28.99, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $14.99, Kindle). After studying “many of the world’s most impressive negotiators,” the authors (all Harvard professors) classify the controversial Kissinger as “a breed apart.”

The authors—James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin—are experts in negotiation, diplomacy, and law. They allowed Kissinger to write the book’s forward. In it, he lauds the authors for being the first, to his knowledge, to “seriously analyze” his “most effective strategies and tactics to address different challenges at the table.” This then is the book’s “central topic,” he says, which makes it “unique.”

The authors dissect Kissinger’s most formidable negotiations by beginning with what they call the “forgotten case” of South Africa in 1976. Then they work their way through Kissinger’s involvement in the Vietnam War, with U.S.-China relations, the Cold War, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. They find “a great deal to admire and several aspects to question.”

The concluding chapter offers fifteen “Key Lessons on Negotiation from Henry Kissinger” and provides a checklist to use if you’re ever bargaining across a table. Which begs the question: What happens when your opponent has a copy of the list?

The checklist rewords old practices and self-evident truths. It reminds me of military school handouts that address concepts of leadership: “Know your job” was the first principle of those schools. This book gives similar advice; to wit: “Develop deep familiarity with the subject of your negotiation.”

The professors add a caveat, however, for leaders who negotiate in areas in which they lack knowledge: “Make sure that your team possesses this knowledge.” Do they mean “Know yourself and seek self-improvement,” which has been taught to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines for ages?

What the authors call the book’s “key lessons,” therefore, are not new. In the situations cited, they were effective because of Kissinger’s skill in choosing and applying established tactics. For example, the authors emphasize Kissinger’s talent for “zooming out” to set strategies and “zooming in” to contend with difficult opponents.

The authors describe the miasma that engulfed Kissinger in making Vietnam War policy. “No,” they say, was the operative word from everybody he encountered: the U.S. Congress and public, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, South Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Thieu, and Chinese and Soviet diplomats. Even West German officials added to the discord.

For years, Kissinger pursued America’s Vietnam War goals for good or bad despite Richard Nixon’s showing his hand by withdrawing troops starting in 1969. The authors classify Kissinger’s early bargaining position with the North Vietnamese as “weak.” But his determination was formidable, they say, in pursuing tasks bordering on the impossible.

While reading about Kissinger versus the North Vietnamese, I kept thinking that he could have stayed home if a president had targeted B-52s over Hanoi seven, or even five, years earlier.

With more than one hundred of the book’s pages devoted to notes, bibliography, and index, arguments about negotiation techniques fill less than three hundred pages. Nevertheless, the book provides interesting views of history and Kissinger’s role in the action.

—Henry Zeybel