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The Power of Talking About It

War, more than any other historic phenomena, has shaped the contours of the modern world. Over the past few centuries, armed hostilities between nations have forced leaders to redraw borders, forfeit their sovereignty and take hundreds of millions of lives in the process.

But what about the wars that were averted or mitigated through diplomacy — the many conflicts that were resolved through shrewd negotiation instead of military force?

“Words, as much as weapons, shape history,” posits author Fredrik Stanton in his new book, “Great Negotiations: Agreements That Changed the Modern World,” which chronicles eight of the most epic parleys ever to have transpired.

“The traditional way of looking at history is through the lens of either biography or war,” Stanton said in an interview. “One of the things this book does is fill in a missing piece of that equation.”

From the harrowing tale of how Benjamin Franklin managed to cajole France into publicly supporting the American Revolution to a white-knuckle account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanton deftly illustrates that the power of haggling can easily rival that of any army or warhead.

His work represents a welcome addition to life in an increasingly multipolar world. Indeed, just last week Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likened the nuclear showdown with Iran to the Cuban Missile Crisis, calling negotiations “high-stakes diplomacy” akin to the kind President John F. Kennedy found himself facing in 1962.

Many of the situations Stanton writes about seemed hopeless at first, where the strategic forces aligned against each other were so evenly balanced that negotiations hinged on the psychology of the individuals seated around the table.

“You can learn from them on a tactical level. You can learn tricks that they used and you realize, of course, that amazing things are possible in negotiations under the right circumstances,” Stanton said.

For example, the Continental Army was on its last legs when George Washington dispatched Franklin to plead with France for weapons and supplies. Without them, the war would surely be lost, yet France was reluctant to provide anything more than tacit support in the form of covert arms shipments.

A monarchy itself, France was skittish about publicly supporting the colonists’ revolution against King George III. But it also stood to benefit immensely from an American victory over its historic enemy — both through Britain’s defeat and a lucrative trading relationship with a resource-rich continent. But France refused to be drawn into a public alliance with the Americans lest it lead to war with Britain.

In a flash of diplomatic subterfuge, Franklin entered into faux peace negotiations with Paul Wentworth, his British counterpart. But Franklin never intended to settle for anything less than outright independence; as Stanton writes, “Franklin’s purpose, of course, was not to engage Wentworth in a meaningful discussion on the substance of his proposals, but to keep him occupied in conversation long enough to generate a convincing impression of entertaining his offer.”

Several days later, the Franco-American treaties were signed, and France’s assistance proved instrumental in turning the tide of the war, even though its support “cost the French treasury over a billion livres (equal to three times of France’s national budget), drove the country deep into debt, and led to taxes that provoked the French Revolution in 1789).”

Next came the Louisiana Purchase, which is typically remembered more for being one of the best real estate deals of all time than an averted military conflict. But Napoleon Bonaparte’s stealthy purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the Spanish monarchy and intention to use it as the centerpiece of a French empire in the New World was cause for great worry among America’s leaders. A resolution of war was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate shortly thereafter, and Alexander Hamilton remarked that France’s ownership of New Orleans and the Mississippi River “threatens the early dismemberment of a large portion of our country; more immediately the safety of all the Southern States; and remotely the independence of the whole union.”

But when James Monroe and Robert Livingston were dispatched to France to negotiate a resolution, they were not authorized to make an offer to buy the entire territory. Instead their goal was simply to acquire New Orleans and shipping rights along the Mississippi. Upon their arrival, a nerve-wracking bargaining session transpired in which “the question of peace or war was in the balance,” according to Livingston.

Stanton recounts how in the interest of preserving peace, Monroe and Livingston acted well beyond their authority to acquire the largest piece of land in the United States’ nascent history, thereby avoiding all-out war with a nation that had helped it secure its independence only a few decades prior.

“They went in looking to buy New Orleans and shipping rights along the Mississippi and ended up leaving with half a continent,” he mused.

The book’s engaging descriptions of momentous deal-making — including the Egyptian-Israeli armistice agreement and the Reykjavik Summit — show that maintaining an adept diplomatic corps is equally as important as sustaining a powerful military.

While the use of military force is unavoidable at times, Stanton’s hope is that “the better we understand what has worked in the past and which mistakes to avoid, the less often states may find the need to resort to violence to settle differences.” And in a world littered with nuclear weapons and fraught with diplomatic challenges, doing so is of the utmost importance.

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