Reykjavik Was No Bungle but the Way to Get Started

<i> Roger Fisher, a professor of law at Harvard, is director of the Harvard Negotiations Project and co-author of "Getting to YES.": Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In " (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). </i>

No one believes that a binding international agreement was made at Reykjavik. The Soviets insist that all proposals are part of a single package which the United States rejected. The United States concurs that there was no commitment.

In these circumstances, debate over substantive terms on which we did not agree is worse than absurd, it is counterproductive. It tends to push each side back into rigid positions about what they are willing and unwilling to do, and it makes progress more difficult. Nor is it constructive for them to blame each other for the “failure of Reykjavik” while simultaneously proclaiming the meeting to have been a great success.

The likelihood of achieving major arms reduction agreements is a function of the negotiation process. Too often the process is, “decide first, talk later.” The chance of reaching a wise agreement is greatly enhanced by following a quite different process in which commitments are made after hard, collaborative work, not before. Making commitments early in the negotiation process cuts off learning, limits imagination and turns needed flexibility into a politically costly activity known as “backing down.”

We need to understand why progress was possible at Reykjavik and apply that lesson over the weeks ahead.


The problem with most summits is well recognized: Either the leaders sign modest agreements that were previously negotiated by staff without benefit of their personal contributions, or they sign agreements hastily negotiated by themselves with little time for staff contributions. The Iceland pre-negotiation session was well designed to avoid this dilemma. The advance decision to sign no treaty at Reykjavik made possible the loosening up of negotiating positions, the clarification of underlying interests and the creative brainstorming that in fact took place. The importance of the accomplishment lies not in the precise substantive content of the ideas discussed, but in the identification of broad propositions on which to work.

Rather than argue over the interpretation of hastily drafted tentative agreements, experts should work side-by-side on a range of options to implement the propositions that were developed in Iceland. A lot of constructive work should be done in Geneva before the two leaders are asked to make final decisions.

That kind of work would be set in motion if, for example, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnaze were to conclude their meeting next week in Vienna with instructions for the Geneva arms negotiators along the following lines:

-- Goal: Your goal is to prepare jointly a set of draft agreements to which neither government is committed but which you, as professionals, are prepared to recommend for adoption.

-- Alternatives: Where you encounter a significant issue on which you are unable to develop an agreed draft, you shall jointly prepare two or more alternative drafts that reflect well-considered ways of implementing the approach that the head of either delegation believes constitutes the best means of accommodating the legitimate interests of both governments. At some future summit, the leaders should face well-considered alternative solutions, not simply problems. At such a future summit the draft that most fairly reconciles the interests of both sides is the one more likely to be adopted.

-- Consultation: While the drafts are under preparation, you should consult your governments to develop a full understanding of their concerns and a full range of ideas on how they might best be reconciled. You should not, however, seek a government decision on what would or would not be “acceptable” before the two leaders have a further chance to meet and to consider jointly the results of your work.

-- Drafts to be prepared: You should jointly prepare, as promptly as possible, drafts of operational agreements in treaty form on each of the major arms issues discussed at Reykjavik.

The critical question is not the substantive content of the tentative agreements discussed in Iceland but how we best build on the progress that was in fact made. Unless someone has a better idea, let’s have our Geneva negotiators use their time to turn the Reykjavik ideas into realistic and well-considered options.


Rather than seeing Reykjavik as a bungled occasion for making commitments, let us recognize that it served the purpose for which it was intended--an excellent pre-negotiation session.