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Author of Great Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World, Fredrik Stanton is the former president and publisher of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the seventh largest English-speaking daily newspaper in New[…]

In 1905 President Roosevelt acted as mediator between a warring Russia and Japan, preventing global escalation and allowing both to save face while ending their costly conflict—a lesson on the importance of third party moderation in everyday negotiations.

Fredrik Stanton: In 1905 there was almost a world war that was ignited. There was a war between Japan and Russia, two of the great powers on earth at the time. It was one of the first major industrial wars; it was incredibly fierce and bloody. And it really exhausted both the Japanese and Russian Empires and bled them dry. And it came very close to drawing in the other major powers and starting a world war. 

Theodore Roosevelt, who was the President of the United States, felt that the U.S. could serve a very useful role in mediating the dispute. Both sides trusted Teddy Roosevelt, and he saw this as an opportunity to bring America to play a larger role on the world scene through diplomacy.

Both sides' governments wanted negotiation, but neither one of them wanted to make the first move. And so what Roosevelt did was he turned to each of them and said, if this is what you want, you can approach me, and then I will make it possible for both of you to take the first step and make concessions without losing face. That was very important.

The negotiation was held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It almost didn’t succeed, but Theodore Roosevelt was able to pull it off and won the first Nobel Prize any American won. He won the Peace Prize for preventing a world war and sheathing the swords of a half a million men.

Question: What lesson does this teach us about everyday negotiations?

Fredrik Stanton: One of the lessons we can learn from the success of the Portsmouth treaty negotiations is the value of a mediator. This was a situation where, while elements of both sides wanted to continue the war, both governments realized that peace was really in their interests. Theodore Roosevelt as a mediator provided that.

And often we can find that in our own lives in negotiations we carry out as well. In our legal system, mediation is offered as a less expensive and less harrowing alternative to a full-blown lawsuit; it allows the parties to reach a compromise and reach a settlement without having to go to trial. 

But even informally. I mean, if there’s an intractable dispute and egos are high and emotions are wound up, seeking out a third-party to provide a convenient out for both sides is often very effective.