The year was 1969, and Henry Kissinger was shortly to become the world’s most famous negotiator.
One of his early victories as National Security Advisor was getting the Sovet Union to reduce their restrictions on Jewish emigration, resulting in tens of thousands being able to leave the communist country over just a few years time.
How did Kissinger pull off this extravagant deal? He did so by wisely trading face with his Soviet counterparts.
The deal was that Kissinger and President Nixon would recognize this favor from the Soviets, while also keep the arrangement to themselves, not taking any public credit for the increase in Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. This of course allowed the Soviet leaders to save face, since no one would be hip to the fact that this favor had been granted.
All was going according to plan until 1972 when an ambitious Senator named Henry “Scoop” Jackson decided he wanted Congress to negotiate the issue of Jewish emigration, publicly and with a hard line stance.
Trying desperately to rescue the successful understanding and now playing middle man, Kissinger creatively designed a new way for all parties to save face on the world stage.
Instead of asking the Soviet leaders to agree to the demand of Jackson to meet a certain high number (something they would never do), he asked the Soviets to simply declare that they would “allow” levels of emigration that nobody realized were already happening. Importantly, this would include an estimate of future emigration made by the Soviets themselves.
After securing this commitment, it seemed that Kissinger could bring back to Jackson something he could work with. Couldn’t he?
Unfortunately, it turned out not to be, as Kissinger learned that Jackson and Congress were far less sensitive to the face needs of the Soviets, and would not accept anything less than a public commitment to an American target of near 100,000 emigrants.
So why after such creative negotiating by Kissinger did Jackson refuse to go along?
Jackson declined because of the unspoken reality that sometimes making any deal means losing too much face, and for this reason such negotiators who appear to be acting in good faith know all along that they are not.
This turned out to be the case for Jackson, and the ever savvy Kissinger had been around long enough in Washington D.C. to know this time he would not be riding off into the Potomac sunset with a victory.