James A. Baker, III 2018-01-23 08:16:00
One of the best things that happened to me on my way toward becoming secretary of state and the nation’s top diplomat was that Harry R. Jones served as my mentor when I was a young lawyer at Andrews Kurth. Harry was a lawyer’s lawyer, superb at his craft and warm, gentlemanly, brilliant, and pragmatic. And he offered wonderfully sage advice. “Words are all we have as attorneys,” he often told me. “So, we better use them well.” Above all, Harry Jones knew how to cut to the heart of a matter in an effort to focus on what is achievable. The ability to separate the wheat from the chaff not only served me well at the law firm, it has also been one of my strengths in politics and public service. I owe that and other professional traits to Harry Jones. In fact, almost everything I did in public life was based at least in part on my experiences while serving for 18 years as a business lawyer in my hometown of Houston. Whether dealing with heads of foreign governments or with members of Congress, I always enjoyed negotiating, maybe because I had spent so many years doing it as an attorney. First, and foremost, my legal training taught me to understand the importance of appreciating my opponent’s position. If there was one key to whatever success I’ve enjoyed in negotiating, it has been that I have the ability to crawl into the other guy’s shoes. This was vitally important when I was secretary of state to President George H.W. Bush and our administration confronted the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. No leaders like to see themselves humiliated on the world stage. We therefore did all we could to avoid “triumphalism” and public crowing over the defeat of communism and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Our attention to Moscow’s sensitivities, I believe, was a major reason the Cold War ended with a whimper, and not with a bang. Another lesson learned as an attorney that helped me when I was secretary of state was building trust through personal relationships. But sometimes, building trust needs a little help or kick-start. So I often employed an approach called “parallel reciprocal confidence building” as a way to keep the parties talking. As a business lawyer, I learned that the best way to think about a big negotiation was as a series of small negotiations. It was always important to start with an issue that could be resolved quickly, reasonably, and amicably. Finding a common point of agreement—even a minor one, like the shape of the negotiating table—can help set the tone of the relationship. It helps develop a dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations because the longer you can keep the sides talking with one another and not delivering sermons to one another, the better are the chances that a middle ground can be reached. It is a lesson I applied again and again in my public career: “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” Harry Jones was a big proponent of this maxim. A further lesson learned as an attorney that aided my career in Washington was to appreciate timing. That is, the ability to recognize when to press a point and when to withdraw. Like a good poker player, you have to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. In 1991, international developments provided good timing for creating better relationships between Jews and Arabs. Remember, the collapse of communism was proceeding around the world. That phenomenon, coupled with the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, created a new geostrategic dynamic. The timing was right to try to bring Israel and all of her Arab neighbors to the bargaining table for the first time ever to talk peace, and so we were able to succeed. There are, of course, other lessons I learned as an attorney that helped me as a diplomat. I learned “principled pragmatism,” the art of the possible without sacrificing principle. I learned that in any negotiation nothing should be deemed to have been agreed to until everything is agreed to. And I learned the Golden Rule of negotiating: Never lie. Misunderstandings and miscommunications are inevitable. Lies, however, break trust between the sides, and trust is vital to negotiations. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is the value of a strong mentor. Harry R. Jones was mine. And my public career flourished because of his tutelage of me as a young attorney. JAMES A. BAKER, III was the 61st U.S. secretary of state and is currently a senior partner in Baker Botts.
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