In English, says Webster's, negotiate means to "confer, bargain or discuss with a view to reaching agreement." In the Russian language, the word for negotiate, peregovor, means literally "to repeat talk," or to talk again and again--with the connotation that the talk will go nowhere.
Similarly, compromise, which to Americans has positive overtones of flexibility, is not native to the Russian language at all. Instead, kompromess has been imported from abroad, and it implies concessions of principle.
"It's almost a dirty word," said Paul H. Nitze, the longtime U.S.arms negotiator, "because Lenin's success was based ostensibly on his refusal to compromise."
These distinctions are more than linguistic quirks. They reflect the vast historical gulf in cultures, traditions and ideologies that separates the United States and the Soviet Union--a gulf that goes far beyond the strategic and geopolitical differences between the world's superpowers.
Thus, when President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev meet at the summit in Geneva on Nov. 19-20, they must contend with the fact that the two sides approach the conference with fundamentally different conceptions of what purpose diplomatic negotiations serve, how they should be conducted and what constitutes success.
"We're a bargaining culture where, after some give and take, you split the difference to reach agreement," said William L. Ury, director of Harvard University's Nuclear Negotiation Project. "But the Soviets see negotiation as a dialectic in which, after an argument, the right side wins. That's their side, of course."
And the action-oriented Americans want quick results, while Moscow's chess players will endure stalemate while waiting for opponents to weaken.
This does not mean that a Reagan-Gorbachev summit is pointless. Refusal to talk is no solution: Nuclear arsenals that grow larger and technologically more lethal year by year are themselves a form of mute negotiations that influence the other side and that, in the absence of talk, could increase the risks of war.
Nonetheless, U.S. negotiators in Geneva must begin their task with the enormous challenge of understanding the historical and cultural roots of their counterparts on the other side of the diplomatic table.
Said Richard Pipes, a former member of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan Administration, "The idiosyncrasies of Russian political culture, accumulated over centuries, have as great a bearing on the conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy in the Soviet Union as they had in Imperial Russia."
And the history of Russian diplomacy is a tangled tale indeed.
When Peter the Great sent a negotiating team to Western Europe in the 17th Century, for example, his diplomats broke furniture, used their guest quarters like an out-house and acted little better than "baptized bears," as a contemptuous German official wrote.
Within two centuries, as their contacts with the West increased, Russian diplomats came to behave much like traditional Europeans. Yet Nikita S. Khrushchev spurned what Americans consider the accepted norms of diplomatic behavior when he pounded his shoe on the table at the United Nations 25 years ago.
Less bullying but equally puzzling to Americans were the pranks of Leonid I. Brezhnev during the heyday of detente: He once set off a toy cannon during an arms negotiating session and, in apparent glee, made off with the briefcase of a U.S. diplomat who found himself standing beside the Soviet leader in a Kremlin men's room.
Nor do all the idiosyncrasies lie at the Kremlin's door. For its part, the United States insists almost petulantly that other countries follow its concept of correct negotiating behavior--a concept rising out of the Western mercantile tradition of rapid-paced bargaining and compromise.
The U.S. view of proper behavior often clashes not just with Soviet but also with Japanese and Arab notions of how negotiating should be done. When rebuffed, however, Americans turn away.
"The Soviets rejected our March, 1977, arms proposal on the spot," Edward L. Rowny, another senior Administration arms negotiator, recalled recently. "But now they ask, 'Why did you take no for an answer? We always say no.' "
'We Feel Cheated'
Similarly, "if we make a concession in 'good faith,' but the Soviets just put it in the bank, as they always do, rather than reciprocate, we feel cheated," said Harvard's Ury. "It isn't a matter of right or wrong, just that they play by different rules."
The Russian language obviously has words for bargaining and haggling--words private citizens might use to arrive at the price of a sack of scarce Georgian lemons, for instance. But these are not used in the context of negotiations, according to Kenneth Katzner, author of a recent Russian-English dictionary.
Another important difference, said Ury, is that "they do tend to take greater liberty with the truth." During a recent conversation in Moscow, he said, "we counted 30 Russian words for lying, dissembling, manipulating. English is not so rich. It's like the Eskimos, who have about 50 words for ice and snow, because it's a constant part of their environment."
In the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet diplomats showed clearly their capacity to lie. Installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba was far advanced when Moscow's emissaries insisted emphatically and repeatedly to President John F. Kennedy that the Kremlin had no intention of placing offensive weapons on that island.
Individuals may be sincere, former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko (now Soviet president) later told an American diplomat, but "governments are never sincere."
The Reagan-Gorbachev summit comes in the wake of a marked change in personalities and in negotiating approaches by the Soviets.
The law school graduate who now leads the Soviet Union seems a suave new breed of Russian compared with his predecessors, whose aides--including Gromyko--have been summarily moved out of their influential positions.
And the personality change has manifested itself in a substantive departure from past Soviet negotiating practice: Gorbachev has beaten the United States to the punch by putting forward a far-reaching arms offer. It may be technically a "counterproposal," as the White House insists, and it may have more pitfalls than promise at this point. But for the first time, the Soviets have proposed radical cuts in their own arsenal in order to limit U.S. weapons programs.
In the past, they tended to wait for the United States to come forward with arms control offers. And they always chose to keep their arsenal at full strength while seeking to constrain this country's strategic programs by taking advantage of political strains among U.S. allies, Congress and the American public.
Refuses to Compromise
Nonetheless, Gorbachev scrambled up the same ladder as his predecessors. He rose to power in a totalitarian system whose ideology remains inimical to the Western democracies. He calls himself a "Leninist," which in Soviet terms means one who can realistically assess and act on a problem but who refuses to compromise Communist principles.
And his arms offer is still based on the well-worn Soviet demand for "equality and equal security" in the world. To have "equality" with the combined arms of the United States, China and all other nations that are potentially hostile, however, means having superiority over each of those nations individually, which would deny each of those nations the "equal security" the Soviets want for themselves.
History and ideology, therefore, will probably affect the outcome of the summit as much as the personal style and education of the new Soviet leader or the specific proposals laid out.
The differences between U.S. and Soviet negotiating philosophies are rooted in the national experiences of the two nations, as well as in traditions they inherited from ancient times. The American approach is traced primarily down the historical chain from ancient Greece and Rome, while the genealogy of Russian history stems largely from Byzantium and the Orient, according to authorities.
Ancient Greece concluded that international relations could best be managed by adherence to certain stable principles and did much to create the machinery of diplomacy and law on which the United States operates. Rome enlarged on the Greeks' conceptual approach by establishing the sanctity of contract, which underlies the value of treaties.
Significantly, both the Roman Empire and the Greek city-states at their zenith were powerful, self-confident governments carrying forward their diplomatic efforts from positions of strength.
In contrast, the oldest strains in Russia's historical heritage evolved from relatively weak states that struggled continually for sheer survival. "Byzantine diplomacy was first and foremost self-serving in that it served the purpose of maintaining a weak Byzantine Empire," according to a Congressional Research Service study, "Soviet Diplomacy and Negotiating Behavior," compiled by Joseph G. Whelan.
"A diplomacy of artifice, it fostered deception and fraud and contributed to establishing a pattern of diplomacy for Europe," Whelan said, when this approach was adopted by the Italian city-states a millenium later.
"Classical diplomacy of this type, however, which sought short-term balances of power, began to change fundamentally in the 19th Century in Europe with the rise of industrial democracies. It collapsed totally in the trenches of World War I."
Russia, meanwhile, had come late to the European scene. Its early exposure to Byzantium, with its Orthodox rather than Roman forms of Christianity, had a variety of cultural as well as political effects. The Russian language still uses the Cyrillic alphabet, for example.
Most important, "Russia was immured from the powerful, creative, and liberating intellectual and historical forces (for example, the Renaissance) that impacted on Europe since the late Middle Ages," in Whelan's view.
Diplomacy of Weakness
"Like Byzantium, Russian diplomatic behavior was a diplomacy of weakness, one geared essentially to survival in an unfamiliar world and one that reflected a deeply ingrained consciousness of (the importance of) security and suspicion of foreigners," he wrote.
A slightly different view is taken by Pipes, now a professor at Harvard. "The background of (Russian) diplomacy was primarily Oriental," he said recently, because Russia grew up on the fringe of Asia. Its domestic and foreign policies were developed in relation to the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan and its successors, to which it was subjugated for two centuries, followed by the Ottoman Empire, China and nomadic civilizations.
"The principles of this kind of diplomacy," Pipes said, "are very different from those of the West. There is, for example, no concept of the fundamental right of every state to exist." The Russians, in Pipes' view, learned to be cunning when weak, imperial when strong.
Peter the Great's visit to the West in 1697-98 turned Russia's eyes from Asia to Europe. It also introduced Europeans to Russians. "His entourage virtually destroyed the house assigned to them in London," tearing up bed sheets, slashing 29 paintings, breaking 300 window panes and stealing or breaking 50 chairs, according to a study by Yale scholars.
Much of this appeared a "deliberate flouting of Western convention . . . to demonstrate Russian superiority." Rude insults were part of their defensive boorishness, the scholars concluded.
Russian diplomatic manners improved but took a radical swing after the Communists took power. At their first international negotiation, at Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks rejected the accepted traditional behavior in negotiations and exposed the West to their new revolutionary style that showed visible contempt for diplomacy's customs and niceties, according to historians.
Heading the Soviet delegation, Leon Trotsky included in his team a worker, a sailor, a soldier and a peasant. They dined alone, rejecting invitations. More important, as Trotsky later acknowledged, for the Soviets the purpose of the talks was not to reach a peace settlement but to create a platform for "arousing the workmen's parties of Germany and Austria-Hungary" to revolt.
Relations With U.S.
George V. Chicherin, a former Russian aristocrat, revived Moscow's diplomatic Establishment after Trotsky's ouster, chalking up notable successes for the young Soviet state. And his successor, Maxim Litvinov, negotiated the formation of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1933; U.S.-Russian relations had been broken when the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian Revolution.
In that process, according to the Congressional Research Service study, Litvinov followed what has become a "fairly standard Soviet operating procedure: "Litvinov did not table any Soviet proposals, but rather only responded to those initiated by the other side. With the burden of accommodation placed on the United States, American negotiators ran the risk of negotiating with themselves."
This pattern of U.S. proposal followed by Soviet counterproposal has largely continued through the Cold War and detente period.
American history was so different from the Soviet experience that it shaped the outlook of present-day U.S. leaders in ways that have made it especially difficult to understand the men in the Kremlin.
"Little in our historical experience prepared us for dealing with an adversary of comparable strength on a permanent basis" after World War II, according to Henry A. Kissinger, the White House national security adviser and secretary of state for President Richard M. Nixon.
In personalities, too, there was little in American history to prepare it for a Khrushchev who bullied and intimidated in an effort to win concessions. With his "missile diplomacy," he threatened to destroy entire nations with nuclear strikes. His brash "deadline diplomacy" brought on two Berlin crises. His attempt to sneak missiles into Cuba brought the superpowers "eyeball to eyeball"--their closest encounter of the nuclear age--before he was ousted.
It appeared that old Russian aggressiveness had been given a new justification in Communist ideology.
"The most singular feature of Soviet foreign policy is Communist ideology, which transforms relations among states into conflicts between philosophies," Kissinger has written. "Their ideology teaches that the class struggle and economic determinism make revolutionary upheaval inevitable. . . . "Permanent peace, according to Communist theory, can be achieved only by abolishing the class struggle, and the class struggle can be ended only by a Communist victory," he added.
The dual impulses of Russian nationalism and Communist ideology that lie behind Soviet policy, he continued, result in a strategy of "ruthless opportunism. No chance of incremental gain must be given up for Western concepts of good will." This has caused Soviet negotiators to haggle, engage in sharp practices, even miss opportunities by failing to pick up U.S. overtures in order to "squeeze the lemon dry."
Watching Soviet diplomats over the years, Westerners have often speculated about whether the Kremlin's negotiating style is more Russian than Communist, or vice versa.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a senior Nixon Administration official, tends to emphasize the Russian heritage rather than anti-Western ideology in accounting for Soviet behavior. "Even the other Communist nations find the same characteristics we do in Soviet negotiators--hostility, suspicion, out to squeeze every last drop," he notes.
It was Sonnenfeldt, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, whose locked briefcase Brezhnev grabbed in the Kremlin restroom--chortling about "learning our secrets so they could beat us in the negotiations," Sonnenfeldt recalls, although the briefcase was at the startled American diplomat's seat when he returned to the table.
Sonnenfeldt also once found himself locked in a bizarre bit of personal negotiating with Brezhnev. During the course of the first U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations, Sonnenfeldt absent-mindedly put his wristwatch down on the table. Brezhnev snatched it up and refused to return it, dickering over its value and ultimately giving the American both a new Swiss watch and the Soviet leader's own pocket watch but vowing to keep his prize "until we conclude a good agreement."
To Sonnenfeldt, such behavior sprang more from Brezhnev's Russian heritage than from his Marxist ideology.
On the other hand, arms control adviser Nitze finds as a general rule that "the Communist Party is more important than Russian tradition, although obviously sometimes party doctrine and Russian nationalism match. That doctrine excludes the possibility of compromise.
"This underlines the Soviet negotiating philosophy. And it means, unfortunately, that the Soviets look upon arms control negotiations as a zero-sum game, which ends with a winner and a loser," Nitze says. "In fact both sides could gain from a proper agreement."
Tough to Budge
Culture and ideology aside, the Soviets are extremely tough negotiators by all accounts. They are often called "hagglers," even "shysters," who cannot be budged except by patience and strength.
"The Russians are not to be persuaded by eloquence or convinced by reasoned arguments," according to William Hayter, a former British ambassador to Moscow. "They rely on . . . the calculation of forces.
"So no case, however skillfully deployed, however clearly demonstrated as irrefutable, will move them from doing what they have previously decided to do. The only way of changing their purpose is to demonstrate that they have no advantageous alternative, that what they want to do is not possible," Hayter says.
In interviews, specialists in Soviet behavior listed a number of other characteristics that typically distinguish Soviet and American negotiating styles:
--Patience. "They play chess," Rowny noted, "we play checkers, and also Pac-Man, for instant gratification."
Added Harvard's Ury: "As a nation, we are at the extreme impatient end of the patient/impatient spectrum. The Soviets--and the Japanese--are at the patient end. They outwait us."
A corollary is different attitudes toward conflict. "Our way to deal with conflict is to avoid it," Ury said. "If a marriage doesn't work, get a divorce; if a neighborhood is bad, move." Rowny put it another way: "We see a problem, and we think every problem has a solution. The Soviets know better."
--Negotiators. "American negotiators always want to bring home the bacon because Americans are success-oriented," said Sonnenfeldt. "Sometimes our negotiators go too far in suggesting 'alternatives' and 'other scenarios' beyond their instructions, because they helped write the proposal and have a stake in whether it sells or not. Soviet negotiators, on the other hand, are held on a tight leash in negotiations and have no personal stake in whether the talks succeed or not."
But Nitze defended the American procedure of including negotiators in policy councils that decide what proposals are to be made. "No one back in Washington knows half as much as the negotiator at the table," he said. "It's unthinkable that his voice not be heard."
--Secrecy. The Soviets are paranoid about security, while Americans are almost cavalier about it. Moscow chose to negotiate the first strategic arms agreement in 1972 on the basis of U.S. estimates of its weapon strength rather than make public figures of its own. Soviet military officials at the negotiations even urged U.S. diplomats not to tell Soviet diplomats too much about Soviet military strength.
Soviet paranoia has sometimes backfired. After Sputnik's launching in 1957, anxiety-ridden leaders in the United States decided the Soviets had a huge missile arsenal and embarked on an intense program to close the so-called "missile gap."
In fact, the Soviets had fewer than 10 missiles that could hit the United States. But because the Kremlin resolutely cloaked this weakness in secrecy, the United States acquired more than 1,000 missiles to counter the barely existent threat.
A counterparanoia created by Soviet behavior afflicts some Americans, according to Sonnenfeldt. "There is the fear that the Kremlin is always up to something, ready to pounce with a grand plan for world domination, when in fact the Soviets are just opportunists."