The genesis of this article was spawned when speaking with a participant in a negotiation regarding his perceived BATNA that basically prevented him from closing a quality deal because he was convinced he had a better option. So what is BATNA and how does it serve the negotiator? This concept was first introduced to negotiators in the popular book by Fisher & Ury entitled “Getting to Yes”. BATNA is an acronym for Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement. When implementing BATNA properly it requires the negotiator to examine what are the alternatives if the current deal in progress is not successful. BATNA is designed to protect the negotiator from accepting an agreement that should be rejected—basically serving as a measuring device. It allows the negotiator to be creative and make the most of the assets the negotiator has to work with to ensure that their needs are satisfied. Fisher & Ury designed BATNA with good intentions to help negotiators create higher quality deals. From their perspective without a BATNA there is a great danger to the negotiator to be overly committed to reaching an agreement because the negotiator has not developed any alternatives. As a result the negotiator may be inclined to accept a subpar deal because they have no other options.
However, with every new drug, there are side effects that could be harmful to the user. Intrinsically, during the negotiation process the negotiator can overestimate the BATNA which potentially could cause death to a quality deal. One of the unintended consequences of BATNA is the emotional stubbornness of the “cock sure” negotiator that thinks they possess an exceptional BATNA. Consequently, the negotiator’s style changes or is altered by the perceived strength of the BATNA that ultimately interferes with the natural outcome of the process. As professor Guhan Subramanian simply states you need to be careful “that you are not giving up a good deal in hand for a BATNA in the bush!” The alternative is so well developed that it becomes appealing—interfering with the actual negotiation because the negotiator has convinced themselves that the alternative is so good that if the other party does not give them everything that they want a quick trigger is pulled and the initiation of the BATNA is in full execution. Unfortunately, quickly the negotiator discovers that the BATNA is not as good when it is the actual option that is why it is a BATNA in the first place. Therefore, if you fall in love with the BATNA she will always look better than the deal in front of you until you attempt to count on her. Yes BATNA serving as the negotiator’s mistress has ruined plenty of quality deals and will continue to do so if the negotiator does not exercise the discipline that it takes to create a quality deal.
Application: The U.S. and the Vietnamese Mistress I wanted to examine one of the major events of the 20th Century where the BATNA served as the negotiator’s mistress and prevented the U.S. negotiators from reaching a functional agreement on the issue of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference of 1954.
The 1954 Geneva Accords: The Geneva Conference was held from April 26th – July 20th 1954 to resolve issues from the Korean War and bring an end to the First Indochina War between France and the Viet Minh (DRV). With the conference underway the final and decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu was coming to a close. On May 7th the day before the Geneva Conference turned its focus to Indochina, the French had fallen to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) at Dien Bien Phu. This event provided leverage at the negotiating table for the DRV or so it seemed. With pressure from their allies (Russia & China) the DRV was encouraged to accept a short-term panacea to the issues in Indochina rather than a decisive permanent resolution. As a result, the Conference Final Declaration that became known as the Geneva Accords called for the following: 1) separating Vietnam at the 17th parallel with a Northern & Southern region; 2) cease fire agreements covering Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and 3) General Elections would be held within 2 years (by July 1956) to unify Vietnam. These elections would be internationally supervised by India, Poland and Canada. This final aspect of the Geneva Accords posed a significant complication. Cambodia, United Kingdom, DRV, France, Laos, Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China all accepted these elements of the agreement. However, the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and The United States refused to accept or sign the agreement but only acknowledge it. The Geneva Accords did not produce a durable solution to the Indochina Conflict but only a military truce which allowed the French and DRV to cease hostilities. After the convention John Foster Dulles came to view the French with distain. The United States spent over 2 billion dollars to support the French fight against communism and he believed that they simply quit and went home to create diplomatic relations with the DRV and leave the U.S. twisting in the breeze. So why didn’t the U.S. take a more active role to reach a more permanent agreement on the issue of Vietnam while all of the parties involved were at the table?
Creation of the BATNA: John Foster Dulles’s Mistress There are two contributing factors that led to the BATNA that the United States applied to the situation in South East Asia. First of all, the mindset that produced the BATNA was a combination of philosophies & beliefs that were not entirely accurate. This fatal flaw led to a very defective decision by the United States. The 1950”s cold war mentality had a severe grip on President Eisenhower and members of his cabinet in particular John Foster Dulles. The U.S. adhered to a “containment” policy when it came to communism and viewed communism as a monolithic block bent on world domination. In conjunction with this policy, was the belief in the “Domino Theory” that purported if the small country of Vietnam fell to communism then all of the other little countries in Southeast Asia would also fall like dominoes. These beliefs became the foundation upon which the BATNA at the Geneva Convention of 1954 was built.
The second major contributing factor in the creation of the U.S. BATNA was the assessment of the players involved in the situation. Two of the significant players were Ho Chi Minh (he had at least 17 names during the course of his life) and Ngo Dinh Diem.
Ho Chi Minh was a very complicated figure that had been fighting for Vietnam’s independence his entire life. The United States first encountered him at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles following the Great War. Going by the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot) he lobbied for Vietnam’s independence but like most other smaller nations at Versailles was kicked to the curb by the Big 4. In 1945 toward the end of the Second World War the United States crossed paths with the now Ho Chi Minh (“He who enlightens”) again. Archimedes Patty an OSS officer was in the process of funding and training Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh to fight against the Japanese in Indo China on behalf of the U.S. Government when the war ended abruptly. Patty got to know Ho pretty well during this time. His assessment of Ho was that he was a nationalist first and communist second. Meaning Ho Chi Minh wanted a united independent Vietnam with a communist form of government. This assessment was supported by Abbot Low Moffat Head of the South East Asia Division of the U.S. State Department until 1947. However, John Foster Dulles painted Ho Chi Minh with a Big Red Communist Brush which was not accurate. Moreover, Uncle Ho was very popular among the people and if an election were to be held in the near future in accordance with the Geneva Accords to decide the future of Vietnam he would probably win. This outcome would be a complete disaster in the eyes of John Foster Dulles. Therefore the evolving BATNA for the U.S. was to establish a Democratic South Vietnam to compete with Ho Chi Minh and prevent Vietnam from falling victim to the big red communist wave. Nation building as we know it today.
Enter another significant player in this event Ngo Dinh Diem. In June of 1954 during the Geneva Conference Bao Dai the last Emperor of Vietnam appointed Diem Prime Minister of South Vietnam in an effort to attract more U.S. support. John Foster Dulles took the bait and hit the trifecta with Diem. He was anticommunist, opposed the French and was against holding free elections in Vietnam within two years. Diệm quickly deposed Bảo Đại in a fraudulent referendum on October 23, 1955, and declared himself president of the newly-proclaimed Republic of Vietnam three days later. By 1955 he became Dulles’s walking ex post facto BATNA. The beautiful mistress had stolen the eye of United States. Now America’s mandarin was billed by the U.S. as the “miracle man of Asia.” Dulles along with President Eisenhower believed that with American political, financial & military support Diem would become the alternative to the free elections and that would allow Vietnamese citizens to live in the democratic South Vietnam free of communism. This very flawed BATNA prevented the United States from negotiating in earnest at the Geneva Conference and became the gateway to the tragedy known as the American Vietnam War. As a very costly lesson learned, a mistress always looks better until you have to count on her!