Out of the Classroom and Into the Fire

Negotiator Roger D. Fisher '43

His adversary was General Abdul Gamal Nasser, the president of Egypt, but Roger D. Fisher '43 was determined to get what he wanted.

It was 1969, and Egypt was in the midst of a tense conflict with Israel. Fisher went to Cairo to interview the Egyptian president for American television.

Before the cameras were set to roll, Nasser wanted to know what questions Fisher would be asking. The Law School professor started to comply, supplying the president with the relatively easy first question.

"Then he put his hand on my knee and said, 'okay, what's the second question,'" Fisher recalls. "I said, 'I won't tell you.'" The outcome: Nasser caved in and consented to have the two-hour candid interview that Fisher came for.

Playing hardball with a world leader is a move from which even the most confident academics would shy away. But Fisher, now Williston professor of law and director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, was merely practicing one of the skills he has taught to world leaders to prepare them for crisis situations.

Judging from his best-selling work, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Fisher can express himself well on paper. In fact, relaxing in his Pound Hall office, Fisher's eyes glow when he opens a text that includes one of his essays as an example of clear prose.

Nonetheless, Fisher is equally enthusiastic about seeing his theories transformed from two dimensions to three, and he has travelled extensively to share his wisdom.

Fisher's personal photograph collection is a testimony to his extensive work in Central America. One six-by-eight color photo displays Fisher in the company of Oscar Arias, the Nobel laureate and president of Costa Rica, and the flip side shows nearly a mirror image, only this time Fisher is with the president of Guatemala. Turn to a nearby print, and you'll see Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is fixing you a stare.

But a few pictures in Fisher's office can't begin to tell the entire story. For example, you wouldn't immediately know that Fisher has had a long-term involvement with Black labor negotiators in South Africa, or that he's trained countless Soviet diplomats how to sit at the arms table.

And you'd have to go far away from Fisher's Law School abode to find the copy of Getting to Yes he inscribed for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Around the world, people have read Fisher's works, which encourage politicians and diplomats to consider the rationality of their opponents' positions and to work towards compromises that adhere to accepted standards.

"I think Roger is as successful as he is in that sort of endeavor because of how rigorously he thinks of how to get ideas across to people," says Wayne Davis, the associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Travelling the Globe

Perhaps demonstrating the savviness that characterizes his negotiation practices, Fisher will not say which countries he has especially enjoyed working with. "I deal with so many, it would be impolitic to say," he says. "It's obviously fun to talk to important people who have a lot to say."

Whether or not it is his favorite area, however, Fisher has spent more time in the Middle East than anywhere else, and in a less-guarded moment he admits that his interview with Nasser--the last one granted to a Westerner before the president's death--was a "high point."

At the time of the Nasser interview, Fisher had already made a name for himself outside Harvard as the host of a television show called "The Advocates," a program which former presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis would later host. For the purpose of securing the Nasser interview, however, the fact that one of Fisher's former students was one of the president's advisors certainly didn't hurt.

Fisher recalls that getting the interview with Nasser wasn't the only accomplishment of the afternoon he spent with the Egyptian president more than 20 years ago. Once the discussion began, Fisher challenged the feasibility of Nasser's demands, requesting that the president consider what would happen to the Israeli prime-minister if she gave up all of that country's occupied territories.

"Nasser started thinking about it and started laughing," says Fisher, smiling as he tells the story, "and he said, 'oh, would she have trouble at home.'"

After the Nasser interview, Fisher continued his examination of the Middle East, urging all involved with the tumultous region to look beyond their own position. In that vein, Fisher penned a book called Dear Israel, Dear Arabs, composed of separate open letters to Palestinians, Egyptians, Israelis and the U.S. State Department.

Although Fisher says the book did not sell very well, it apparently caught the attention of a few people that mattered. Soon Fisher was helping policymakers develop the Rogers Plan, named for former Secretary of State William Rogers, which was an attempt to defuse the 1973 Middle East crisis.

As the end of the decade neared and the prospects for some kind of peace between Israel and Egypt were intensifying, Fisher furthered his expertise in the region by editing a 7-1/2 hour public television documentary on the Middle East situation.

Fisher says he never imagined that he would have a role in the dramatic developments that would occur in the Middle East. But that changed when one of his tennis partners casually asked him a question during a match near their summer homes on Martha's Vineyard. Fisher's partner was then-Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, and the content of the question went far beyond the court's two baselines.

"He said, how do you solve it?" Fisher recalls, referring to an upcoming potential Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiation. "I couldn't wait until the match was over."

Fisher subsequently prepared negotiators for the Camp David summit, which produced the land-mark peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, urging that they start with one conciliatory draft rather than two diametrically opposite ones.

Understanding Each Other

Fisher says he does not try to educate diplomats on the issues they deal with, but instead tries to teach them the nuts and bolts of negotiating. His main goal, he says, is to get each side to understand the other's view. When negotiations were under way during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, Fisher says that he considered it a success that he was able to get some White House officials to see the Iranian side of the conflict.

"They said 'you can't negotiate with crazy men,'" Fisher says.

In his office a decade later, Fisher reenacts his response to these officials. Suddenly springing to his feet, Fisher strides across the room and scribbles furiously on a blackboard. He draws two-columned chart with the headings "If yes" and "If no," representing whether Iran should release American hostages.

Under "If yes," Fisher scrawls "weak, role down, get O," and "risk of attack."

Fisher says he told the policy-makers: "If a client came to you and said, 'that's the options,' who's crazy?"

Fisher isn't involved behind the scenes in the ongoing Iraq crisis, although he says he has talked extensively with several of his friends in the White House and has written articles cautioning against the use of force. Still, Fisher's career, which has spanned the greater part of the past half-century, hardly seems to have run out of steam.

Last May, Fisher ran a workshop for nearly 50 diplomats from Warsaw Pact and NATO countries. And next week, Fisher will coordinate a five-day course for diplomats in West Germany.

Fisher succinctly explains his resolve to continue such efforts: "When the president wants to see you, you tend to do it."

Fisher the Meteorologist

Of course, Fisher hasn't always been jet-setting through the continents to train presidents and diplomats.

After finishing up at Harvard College in 1943, where he concentrated in international relations, Fisher took part in the fight against Japan as a member of a weather reconnaissance team. Fisher says the experience of flying a plane while teaching others how to identify the weather sparked a life-long pursuit of being directly involved in events, instead of just studying them.

"It's the same stuff that's in the books, but it felt totally different--you've been there," he says.

As a result of this newfound desire for worldly experience, Fisher followed up his Harvard Law School education in 1946 by going to Paris with Averell Harriman, a top State Department official, to work on the Marshall Plan. Fisher says he was selected for the mission, along with former Yale president Kingman Brewster, because he had "pretty good grades."

Fisher returned to the U.S. to work for prominent Washington law firm. Since it specialized in international disputes, the young Fisher continued to hone his negotiation skills overseas, in varied places such as Denmark, Iran and Pakistan.

At that point, Fisher was ready for the rough-and-tumble world of arguing cases for the government, winning his first eight cases he argued for the Solicitor General's office in front of the Supreme Court. Fisher then asked his supervisor for a "tough" case, but he says he learned more from the response than he did from his previous string of victories.

"He said, 'did you ever think what would happen if the government won every case?'" Fisher says. "That's kind of stuck with me. More important than every victory is working each case out."

"People ask who's winning this negotiation," Fisher says. "[If] you ask who's winning this marriage, you're not doing very well."

Fisher finally decided to return to the Law School as a professor, ready to put onto paper the negotiation theories he had already been practicing. In 1979, Fisher became director and co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, which has also worked with the Program on Negotiation, an umbrella group composed of negotiation researchers from Harvard, Tufts and M.I.T. that was founded in 1983.

Providing a Framework

As director of the project, Fisher has become a major figure in the study of negotiation. Those in the field say that perhaps Fisher's greatest academic contributions lie in the way he has provided a larger framework for important earlier theoretical work that had gone largely unnoticed.

"These were relatively lonely pieces of work, and suddenly it burgeoned into a major field, and Roger Fisher had a great deal to do with it," says Ames Professor of Law Philip B. Heymann. "It turned from a field that was a specialty for certain scholars into a broader approach for a variety of social programs."

If Fisher's procedure for negotiation--which he says can be reduced to just four parts--sounds rudimentary, Fisher says that's because, well, the essentials are simple.

"Up until a few years ago, negotiation was thought of as something like putting on your clothes--who needs it?" Fisher says. "I've had people call me up and say I knew everything in your book, but I didn't know I knew it."

Davis says that although the negotiation theory makes sense, "it is extremely difficult for people to put together that intuitive sense in a way that is internally consistent."

While the overall theory may be intricate, Fisher says that one does not have to be a scholar or diplomat to understand the basics.

In fact, next week he will deliver a talk in a nearby Belmont school, titled "Negotiating with Saddam Hussein and with your kids." Fisher recalls his response to a friend who inquired if there was in fact any difference between the two.

"Yes there is," says Fisher, "but not very much."