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By Mark Young, President, Rational Games, Inc.

All eyes were on Geneva last week to watch the capstone of President Biden’s European trip:  his “working summit” with Vladimir Putin.  Would it be more than a “meet and greet”?  Would meaningful concessions be made by either side?  Would it reveal a way forward?  Would Biden be cogent and convincing at his press conference?

Looking at this, as usual, through my negotiation lens, I would give the President solid marks for this performance.  While the results may be predictably meager, I think he did several key things right in this very difficult meeting:

  1. Ample preparation.  As even Putin was forced to admit afterwards, Biden was very prepared and in command of the content.  Not only that, but the chronology of previous meetings with both the G7 and NATO ensured a coordinated and united front.  Alliances are a major source of power and Biden realizes this like no other.

  1. A focus on “early wins”.  As we teach in our seminars, difficult negotiations should always start with “early wins”, decisions that are low-stakes enough to be made safely, and that create momentum going forward.  As communication is absolutely key in negotiation, restoring both Ambassadors in both capitals is a very tangible signal that we want to talk again.  And establishing working groups for parallel content was also not so difficult.  I am not sure what else one can reasonably expect from a three-hour meeting.

  1. Respect for the Other.  I differ from most commentators in that I see very little downside to elevating Putin’s standing with the invitation to a bilateral summit.  Putin is a very vain man and has never forgotten Obama’s snarky comment about “Russia as a regional power”.  What he craves above all is respect, as Macron also realized three years ago when inviting him to a gold-plated summit at Versailles with all the trimmings.  These concessions to relationship do not cost much as long as they do not include content.

What Biden asked for in exchange behind closed doors is anybody’s guess.  But I feel sure there was something.

In that spirit, let the games begin!

Comments welcome.


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