November 19, 1999
Presidents and Conflict Resolution
The term negotiation has been defined as a formal process that occurs when parties are trying to find a mutually acceptable solution to a complex conflict. People and parties, throughout time, have come to negotiate for two basic reasons. First, they negotiate to create something new that neither party could do on his own. Second, parties negotiate to resolve a problem or dispute between the parties. Although history lends itself to be more susceptible to the latter of the two, the former reason should and will be given some consideration. American history has encountered countless arenas for negotiation. From the founding of new constitutions and governments to the ending of world wars, America has had to compromise repeatedly to establish itself as a superpower. At the top of this bargaining hierarchy is the President of the United States. The actions of this office have implemented policy in all times of dispute. Different presidents have pursued this task in different ways. Some have elected bodies of peace commissioners in which they could voice their opinions through. On the other hand, a few presidents have acted strictly on their own behalf concerning times of dispute. Consequently, the results have varied. So, it must be asked, what method has proven to be most effective? An analysis of several major American wars and their respective peacetime results supports the view that those who elect negotiating bodies and communicate through them have been more effective in achieving their goals.
The first war to be looked at is referred to as Mr. Madison’s war, or the War of 1812. Before the war commenced, James Madison wanted to end impressment, gain Canada, and secure the repeal of the Orders-in-Council. In June of 1812, Britain repealed the Orders-in-Council thereby accomplishing half of Madison’s war aims with no shots yet fired. But, as shots began firing, America’s position was dwindling. By this time, with one attempt to invade Canada having ended in total defeat and another mired in the great swamps of northwestern Ohio, the United States was pathetically anxious to talk peace. The Tsar Alexander of Russia offered to mediate but Madison acted before he even knew of Britain’s answer to this offer. He appointed his Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin and Federalist James Bayard to go to St. Petersburg to negotiate peace. John Quincy Adams, U.S. Minister to Russia, was to meet them there and aid in the talks. Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell were added to the list once Britain agreed to bargain directly. Furthermore, this team of five was sent abroad with orders to come to peaceful terms with Britain. Once Gallatin and Bayard reached England, Gallatin communicated effectively with Madison. He advised Madison and his government not to insist on the impressment issue. Only Gallatin and Bayard were fully aware of the atmosphere in Britain following the fall of Napoleon. Madison simply had to rely on their judgement. Gallatin knew that dropping the issue would force Britain to talk peace eventually. Therefore, Madison altered his original stance in order to seek peace without any stipulations on impressment. Now the peace commissioners had instructions and could proceed with the discussions. Because these men could notify their government and wait for responses, they were given time to develop future strategies and act as mere messengers when, in fact, they had vast bargaining power. It is said that the British commission was inferior to the American both in its clarity of its instructions and in the ability of its members. Madison’s decision to delegate this negotiating authority to competent men allowed the U.S. and Britain to come to a rather quick peace. Adams, Gallatin, and the others were able to communicate with Madison and then with the British officials. They could, in a sense, feel the British out and then report back. No decisions had to be made hastily that would result in immediate policy. The procedure followed by Madison was effective and should have set a clear precedent for future peace negotiations.
The next war to be examined is the Mexican-American War that took place during the presidency of James K. Polk. The war had reached the heart of Mexico and Polk was beginning to think in terms of peace. After much deliberation concerning whom was to be the peace commissioner, Polk, on Buchanan’s recommendation, decided on chief clerk of the Department of State Nicholas Trist. Trist was an able man, perfectly familiar with the Spanish character and language. Well-defined instructions had been given to Trist concerning the desired boundaries and what the U.S. was willing to pay for them. His mission was to be kept secret because Polk did not want the Whigs to try and sabotage these negotiations. One line of communication that was a major part in Trist’s venture dealt with General Winfield Scott. Because of their great pride, strong independence, and extreme sensitivity both men instantly disliked one another. But, the two became friends and worked together to defeat the Mexican army and negotiate a peace treaty. The treaty drawn up by the Secretary of State was presented to the Mexican government by Trist. After review, it was denied. This gave impetus to the U.S. army’s assault on Mexico City. Polk had trouble keeping up with Trist’s progress. He was unsure of the successes on the battlefields and in the peace rooms. On several occasions, Polk said, I fear he may greatly embarrass the government. In fact, Polk lost so much faith that he recalled Trist on several occasions. Obviously, these demands were ignored because Trist felt he was making some progress with Mexican officials, especially since the victory in Mexico City. It must be mentioned that dispatches to and from Washington to Mexico City took at the least two weeks to arrive. Furthermore, much could happen in that time which might change the context of the letter. The point remains that Trist proceeded with his negotiations. He spoke with officials close to Santa Anna and was under the impression that Santa Anna was at heart strongly inclined to negotiations. Polk was still concerned because Trist sent a proposal back to Washington that had the Nueces River as the boundary between Mexico and the U.S. But, this was all part of Trist’s plan. Polk was well aware that Trist was doing better. But, he was worried that if Trist sent a treaty it would present a question of great responsibility and embarrassment whether I should send it to the Senate for ratification or not. Sure enough, Nicholas Trist succeeded in negotiating peace with the Mexican government. He came up with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that accomplished all that was entailed in his first instructions for the meager price of fifteen million dollars. Upon its receipt, Polk said that it seemed acceptable. Polk wanted it too be more closely examined but said it should not be rejected on account of his bad conduct. Primarily, Polk had given Trist clear instructions and he knew what his job was. Communication in this example was not as effective for the reasons previously mentioned. However, Polk had initially placed confidence in an able party to negotiate peace. Trist used this position in the same manner as did the team of five in the War of 1812. He sped things up or slowed things down dependent on the atmosphere of the talks. By allowing Trist to do the talking, so to speak, Polk was successful in achieving his peacetime desires.
The first instance on the opposing end of the spectrum is World War I and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles. The Allies had defeated the Central powers and the world was left in considerable political disarray. The Allied leaders were left with the job of settling boundary disputes, charging reparations, and establishing successor states out of the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Also, the Allies had to make sure that Bolshevism did not spread from Russia. President Woodrow Wilson was in charge of bringing American power and influence on the determination of political issues beyond the Western Hemisphere. But, with his extensive academic background, Wilson had the confidence to take this task head on. It seemed that everyone in the world was willing to put their fate in Wilson’s hands. Wilson enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequaled in history. Yet, the strong-willed President met his match several times at the negotiation table. First of all, Wilson was ill prepared. Greene states, as the President had thought nothing out, the Council was generally working on the basis of a French or British draft. Also, as the negotiations continued, his popularity at home was decreasing. At this point he was not even sure if his own people could trust his decisions. This point supports why an alternate negotiating body should be chosen. Wilson could not have expected or planned for what had happened. Yet, a peace commission would not have been affected by such a distraction. Throughout the negotiations Wilson stayed very much a man of extreme principle. His unwillingness to compromise in a situation that greatly called for it cost Wilson important concessions in the long run. Later, he allowed himself to be talked into agreeing that the spending of the Allied Governments on pensions and separation allowances could be regarded as damage done to the civilian population. This defeat proved to be the greatest in the economic realm of the negotiations. The problem was that Wilson simply would not listen to his fellow commissioners. Because of this, there was a certain lack of central direction and coordination among the American representatives. It then seems conceivable that a more full utilization of these talented men would have eased the burden on Wilson and resulted in a more sound treaty. Wilson’s plan for the League of Nations further clouded his vision. He was so absorbed by his plans for the League and in any case he preferred to work without trying to persuade his commissioners. In the end, he was certain that the formation of the League greatly outweighed the defeats and compromises up to that point. Wilson, above all, was an idealist. Although he mixed this in with some practicality, he made himself exhausted over his firm stances on all of his Fourteen Points. By going on his own, Wilson had bit off more than he could chew. His ill preparation, stubbornness, and seemingly ailing health all contributed to his defeat concerning the treaty. When Wilson spoke, it was considered policy. Whereas, if negotiators spoke, even if it is the President’s exact words, a sense of inexactness and compromise was left in the air. Wilson’s viewpoints were those of only one person. And, with hardly any consultation, it is no wonder that he did not see every facet that was taking place at the conferences. His lack of success with the Treaty of Versailles can be attributed to the fact that he stood alone at the negotiations.
Following the Civil War, the U.S. government was faced with a challenge unparalleled in American history. Never before had the government been put in the position to put back together a war-ravaged country. Several problems became evident quickly. Were the Southern states ever really out of the union? If so, how would they be readmitted and whose job was it to decide? Next, what was to become of the estimated four million slaves that now were to be considered free? Initially, Abraham Lincoln came to shoulder these responsibilities. But, when a bullet ended Lincoln’s life, an unexpecting Andrew Johnson was given this arduous task. Following much of Lincoln’s proposed plans, Johnson demanded certain stipulations in order for states to be readmitted into the Union. He felt strongly that it was his sole responsibility to reorganize the South. Yet, when Johnson was put into office, there were no southerners in Congress in 1865 thereby providing him with zero support. Many were amazed at how daring he was considering his position. He was enacting legislation extremely capriciously. One Radical said that he was convinced that all he said was weighed and measured, and meant to bring about certain results. Many were outraged that their towns were turned into military districts. The officials in these towns were seen as rulers without responsibility, in unchecked control of the material resources of a people with whom they had not a sentiment or interest in common. Northerners were in great fear that they were in jeopardy of losing back what they had fought so hard to gain. Johnson at one point even declared reorganization over and Congress became infuriated. Johnson, similar to Wilson, was not prepared to tackle such an ominous challenge. He could only see the problems created by the war from a single perspective. He tried to veto many of the acts but Congress kept passing over him. Because he persisted in his vision, it seemed clear that Johnson had to go. His unwillingness to compromise led to his impeachment on the basis of high crimes and misdemeanors. Granted, Johnson was dealt a poor hand to begin with. But, he did not allow more able and influential men to handle some of the negotiations confronting reconstruction. His lack of preparation, lack of ability, and stubbornness played a hand in the ultimate failure of Reconstruction.
It can be concluded that the keys to successfully negotiating a conflict are communication, preparation, and open-mindedness. The first two examples noted reveal how communication between parties helps to give clarity to instructions and direction concerning goals. Madison and Polk spoke through their chosen negotiators in order to allow for extended time and freedom to maneuver. And, consequently, the came to the terms that they initially desired. On the other hand, Wilson and Johnson proceeded through their respective periods of strife individually, not allowing others to lend much counsel. Furthermore, they did not have much success in their post-war efforts. Electing a body of peace commissioners in a time of peace negotiation lessens the stress on the President and results in a more beneficial outcome.
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