As President Obama continues his first presidential trip to Asia, much attention has been focused on his negotiation approach and whether he has achieved noteworthy results. Obviously, a whole range of difficult, complex and long-term issues are being addressed, including those in the economic, political, environmental and human rights arenas.
My take on the trip so far is that President Obama has focused on long-term relationship building and information gathering instead of short-term headline-generating results. Why might this be his strategy?
It is critical to uncover the fundamental interests underlying the parties’ positions. Interests are the parties’ needs, desires, concerns and fears. They’re the basic driving forces that motivate parties. The number and type of interests in complex negotiations like those involving China and the United States are many and varied. For example, the parties’ interests here include maintaining and increasing their political power and influence, both domestically and internationally, and ensuring and improving their security and economic well-being. Plus, I suspect both sides’ here are focused on their long-term relationship interests.
Positions, by contrast, are what each side believes or states will satisfy their interests. At a basic level, positions are what you want. Interests are why you want it. In the information-gathering stage of a negotiation, you must do your research and drill down far enough to discover your and the other side’s fundamental interests. Why? It will help you define success, leave as little as possible on the table and find the true “win-win” outcomes. Ultimately, I believe the success of President Obama’s trip will be measured more by what he is able to accomplish over the course of his time in office rather than by any specific results achieved this week.