Over the next few months, the country will be deciding the presidential nominees from the Democratic and Republican parties leading to the ultimate decision on November 8. As a mediator and negotiation consultant I am keenly sensitive to how a president can either resolve international and domestic conflicts or worsen them. Indeed, a president’s strength and skillfulness in conflict resolution at home and abroad is among the most important factors contributing to successful leadership in our nation’s highest office. Thus if we underestimate the critical importance of a candidate’s conflict resolution expertise and abilities, we do so at our own peril.
Recent events in Pakistan and Iran talks highlight expectations of a United States president’s role as a negotiator and mediator. The conventional wisdom in time of international strife is the tougher the image the better. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side has been particularly aggressive especially on Iran, and Senator Hillary Clinton was the only Democratic presidential candidate who voted for the bill naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a “terrorist organization.”
A president as Commander-In-Chief, needs to be perceived as assertive to have the confidence of its citizens. However, we voters must look beyond image. Effective media is about telling a compelling story, but it can get caught up in goading candidates into adversarial sound bites, which candidates often oblige. As the Iowa Republican Caucus tightened, a “battle” increased between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee via reporter comments and television ads. Romney accused Huckabee of personally insulting President Bush, while Huckabee played a Romney attack ad that he was pulling. While entertaining, this story is another example of politicians entering the murky integrity zone where nearly all leave battered and tarnished.
An effective president must come through a career of difficult campaigning and governing and avoid a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome where one sees enemies everywhere and only expects deviousness and manipulation from others. It is not so different from the challenge of a successful police officer, who has witnessed decades of crime, but must still see other perspectives and negotiate effectively with community members, criminals and colleagues.
Consider for a moment the criticism of Barack Obama, who is my choice. Obama has emphasized a conciliatory approach and a new kind of politics. Thus he gets criticized for whether he is a fighter and is questioned for whether he can stand up to Hilary Clinton or the eventual Republican nominee. The unfortunate popular correlation of conciliation with “weakness” has historical precedent. Jimmy Carter has remarked that his approach to the Iranian hostage situation may have cost him the Oval Office, but every American came home safely. His valuation of American lives trumped the strong desire to proceed with deadly force.
I believe the qualities that make a president stellar as a conflict resolver are independent of political affiliation and ideology. Of course, those impact one’s goal and vision in terms of conflict, and each voter will and should take that into account. On conflict resolution, we should compare each presidential candidate on the following four qualities.
Carter and Reagan provide an example of the first of four qualities. A president must balance competition and collaboration to deal masterfully with conflict. One can be as strong in advocating diplomacy as one can be for defeating rival nations. An effective conflict resolver must be able to differentiate times to be assertive and times to be more accommodating. Ronald Reagan who memorably criticized Gorbachev, was very collegial in private negotiations and knew the difference between public rhetoric and one on one negotiations.
The difficulty is exacerbated by the zero-sum nature of national politics. The popular media’s negative views of diplomacy encourage macho posturing by our leaders. One of Gerald Ford’s favorite lines was “You can disagree without being disagreeable” in capturing his approach as a Republican president working with a Democratic Congress. Yet too often recently, presidents and politicians as whole prefer carnage to collaboration leaving the country with no progress on issues like immigration. We as voters need to do a better job discerning who amongst the candidates knows when to fight and also when to compromise.
The second quality is utilizing conflict as a pathway rather than merely managing it. One of the most courageous decisions Harry S. Truman made was desegregating the military, even though he knew doing so might cost him his White House job. He decisively altered the armed forces because he knew the government was a model for the rest of America and it was a page that needed to be turned. Short term conflict ensued in the country, but it accelerated the country forward in the long term. This type of conflict resolution differentiates visionary leadership from crisis management where conflict is viewed less as a battle and more as an opportunity to enhance the system.
The third quality is the ability to understand conflict from a number of perspectives and apply that understanding in effective problem solving. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” A president must reach beyond giving mere lip service to opposing viewpoints. Abraham Lincoln famously included former political rivals in his cabinet and delegated significant authority to them. American‘s problems are exacerbated by habitually approaching them with narrow-minded attack. Conflict resolution at the presidential level requires courage and creativity rather than reverting to the path of least resistance.
Lastly, our next president must be comfortable in his or her own skin to handle conflict well. To balance one’s own ego and realize one’s need to be gracious requires understanding oneself. Voters say they seek authenticity, but why that matters is a president need to know one’s own limits, and not overreach. To not get defensive when criticized strongly by others, one must be confident in one’s own perspective. To heal others in arguably the most demanding job in the world, one must be well.
Conflict is not just about war and international diplomatic crises. Certainly the next president will have to manage international conflicts ranging from Iraq to China, Pakistan to Kenya, and domestic disputes from health care to race relations. Conflict is everywhere. Farooq Kathwari, CEO of Ethan Allan recently remarked on The Newshour with Jim Lehrerthat “Globalization is the biggest conflict that we can think of. Environmental conflicts, trade conflicts, rule of law conflicts, expectations conflicts, all of those, to me, are part of globalization.”
As voters, we need to think beyond the ads and pundits and consider which candidate has the strongest abilities to achieve successful conflict resolution in a wide variety of domestic and international arenas. At a time when approval ratings of the White House and Congress are at historical lows, more and more voters are looking for a president who can put aside ego and bitter acrimony. Voters want progress that can only be made by collaborating on issues of health care and the economy. Also, at a time when the international stage requires a strong American leader to courageously engage conflict, we must have a reflective president who will balance toughness and empathy, heal conflict, understand opposing perspectives, and thereby act decisively to solve critical problems facing our society, nation and world.