In the marble and varnished-wood lobby of The Hague's grand Hotel Des Indes, William L. Ury is delivering a much-needed pep talk. Seated in armchairs pulled up in a tight circle around him are a dozen jet-lagged international lawyers, ex-diplomats, aid specialists and Kremlinologists. The group has flown in to serve as neutral observers of informal peace talks between Russians and Chechens, the first such international forum since a cease-fire was declared in the breakaway republic of Chechnya a year ago.
The opening reception was to have taken place at the International Peace Palace on Thursday evening, two hours from now, but there's been a snag. According to this morning's newspapers, the airplane bringing the Chechen delegation here was forced down by Russian fighter jets; furious, the Chechen leadership has ordered all Russians out of Chechnya (still recognized internationally as a part of the Russian Federation). As if that weren't bad enough, we now learn that the Chechens, having won belated permission from Moscow to resume their journey, are refusing to use their Russian passports. Extensive negotiations with the Dutch will be necessary for them to enter the country. One of the group wonders idly if the Royal Netherlands Air Force has surface-to-air missiles.
"This doesn't exactly build goodwill," Ury says. "First the Russians force them down. Now the Dutch won't let them in. I imagine they'll be pretty mad once they get here." Worse still, he's just learned that the Chechens on the plane aren't the politically savvy centrists everyone was hoping might attend. Instead, they're part of a militant separatist faction, most of them political hard-liners, Muslims who have never set foot outside the former Soviet Union. Several were field commanders in the recent guerrilla war that humbled the Russian Army.
As the man charged with the nearly impossible task of keeping the forthcoming encounter not only civil but constructive, Ury ought to be having a migraine. But no one's feeling sorry for him. The Harvard-trained negotiation expert runs regular workshops called "Dealing With Difficult People and Difficult Situations," so he asked for it. In fact, as he leans back now amid the whirl of the hotel lobby, he seems almost to be enjoying himself -- joking, soothing, offering bits of strategy, cajoling the gloomy faces around him. "One of the things I've learned is, this is like jazz. It's improvised. There's no written score." He shrugs and smiles broadly, his eyes almost crinkling shut. "We'll be in for a wild ride, I suspect."
Bill Ury, 44, was in his late 20s when he and Harvard Law School's Roger Fisher wrote the negotiator's bible, Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Their 1981 book has sold more than two million copies in 21 languages, including Russian, Chinese, Serbo-Croatian and Romanian, and continues to appear on best-seller lists. The book's fans range from Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev to Ann Landers. It argues that positional bargaining -- staking out a position, usually an extreme one to start with, then reluctantly narrowing the gap between what's asked and what's offered in a series of small, painful steps -- makes for bad feeling and worse deals. Instead, Fisher and Ury preach what they call principled negotiation: probe for your adversary's underlying, often unstated interests, then explore how these may overlap with your own. "Try to expand the pie before you divvy it up," in Ury's words. That win-win solutions are a tiresome mantra of junior sales reps everywhere is a testament to Getting To Yes's impact.
As a mediator, teacher and sometime government …