Roger Fisher, Dean of Dispute Resolution, 1922-2012

Vol. 19 No. 2

By

Roger Fisher, Samuel Williston Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School, passed away peacefully surrounded by family on August 25, 2012, at the age of 90. Founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project and later the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, co-author of the seminal and perennially bestselling Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, pioneer in teaching negotiation, and inveterate, self-starting peacemaking interventionist, Fisher had an extraordinary impact that has sometimes been compared to that of Freud.

The success of Getting to YES and the simultaneous creation of the wildly popular Negotiation Workshop at Harvard Law School (offered as a semester course for 144 students and a weeklong summer course for as many practitioners) helped create and legitimate a scholarly field of negotiation and dispute resolution that grew rapidly and thrives today, with research and courses at virtually every law and business school and many undergraduate colleges. But Fisher’s activism, influence, and legacy started long before and extended well beyond Getting to YES.

He inspired thousands of students to appreciate the power of creativity, legitimacy, and putting themselves in the other side’s shoes – and to believe they can make a difference. He articulated a breathtakingly comprehensive analytic framework of tools and insights for systematically diagnosing a conflict, problem, or negotiation and crafting an optimal strategy for dealing with it. Indeed, this intellectual landscape is so broad that few scholars are aware of more than a portion of it. And he intervened directly and helpfully in an unbelievable list of international conflicts. 

As an undergraduate at Harvard College, Fisher co-founded Students for Lend Lease and met President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Soon after, he enlisted and served in World War II as an airborne meteorologist, ultimately flying weather reconnaissance for the atomic bomb. Seeing the terrible costs of war, he was determined to find better alternatives whenever possible. 

He became a lawyer. Asked to stay on and teach after graduation from Harvard Law School, he declined and suggested the school ask again after he had practiced for 10 years. He passed up a clerkship with Judge Learned Hand after being asked to join Ambassador Averell Harriman in working on the Marshall Plan in Paris. Afterward, as an associate at Covington & Burling, Fisher quickly cemented his specialty in international law by working on water issues for Pakistan and on a Saudi Arabian border dispute. Before returning to the faculty at Harvard Law, Fisher worked as assistant solicitor general, a job in which he won eight consecutive cases for the government before the Supreme Court, successfully arguing such major cases as Roth v. United States, the landmark pornography case.

Though back at Harvard, Fisher served for much of the 1960s as a consultant to the assistant secretary of defense, working to find a way to get the United States out of Vietnam. That experience led to his first bestseller, International Conflict for Beginners, in 1969. During the Harvard student “strike” of this time, Fisher organized a series of campus discussions and facilitated a five-hour live television debate that won an award for best public service program of the year. Seeking to harness the dramatic potential of the courtroom to stimulate interest and deepen understanding of important public issues, Fisher then created the public television series The Advocates, for which he won broadcasting’s prestigious Peabody Award. He used the program to begin interventions on arms control, the Northern Ireland conflict, and the Middle East. Fisher’s skillful interview of Egyptian President Nasser for an Advocates program led Nasser to agree, on camera, to holding talks with Israel, which stimulated the successful Rogers Initiative of 1970, ending the so-called War of Attrition.

Building on that success, Fisher soon spent most of a year in the Middle East, which resulted in his book, Dear Israelis, Dear Arabs and then the powerfully moving seven-part public television series Arabs and Israelis. Screening a segment of the latter prior to approving broadcast of the series in Egypt, Nasser’s successor, President Anwar Sadat, was reportedly moved to exclaim, “I need to go to Jerusalem,” which he soon did, laying the foundation for peace with Israel. That peace was finally achieved at the Camp David summit in 1978, facilitated by President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, using the “single negotiating text procedure” that Fisher had suggested to Vance two weeks before after a set of tennis on Martha’s Vineyard.

From 1979 to 1981, Fisher worked diligently to facilitate the release of the American diplomats held hostage in Iran. Eventually asked by both governments to facilitate, Fisher offered a draft framework that reportedly stimulated the Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Four Points” statement that dropped the demand for an apology, which in turn prompted the Algerians to offer formal mediation in which they finalized an agreement based on Fisher’s framework.

In 1981, in addition to Getting to YES, Fisher published Improving Compliance with International Law, which was cited for “preeminent contribution to creative scholarship” by the American Society of International Law.

In 1985 and 1986, Fisher helped enable the first successful summits between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1985 Fisher co-authored a paper with Vadim Sobakin from the Soviet Central Committee that redefined a good relationship between the superpowers as a matter of how conflict is handled rather than whether the parties agree. The result of years of effort to promote this idea, the paper was eventually adopted as official Soviet policy. Fisher elaborated on and generalized those insights in his 1988 book (with Scott Brown) Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate.

In the late 1980s, Fisher pursued peace in Central America. Talks with President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica led to helping Arias tweak the proposed Esquipulas II peace framework to make it self-implementing. Later Fisher brought government and guerilla leaders from El Salvador to Harvard for consecutive brainstorming sessions that then led to talks and eventually peace and official recognition for his role. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, a series of earlier relationship-building efforts in South Africa paid off with invitations for Fisher and his colleagues to train and advise all parties in advance of political talks that led to the end of the armed struggle against apartheid and ultimately the creation of a new constitution that initiated majority rule. Fisher suggested the process and trained the mediators that allowed hundreds of negotiators to reach consensus on the terms of the new constitution.

In 1995, Fisher took on the longest-running war in the Americas, between Ecuador and Peru, pioneering a technique he called “facilitated joint brainstorming,” which brought together significant players from both sides in a wholly nonofficial capacity to explore options with no authority or expectation of commitment. The resulting optimism stimulated direct talks between the countries’ two presidents and eventually in 1998 a mediated peace, facilitated by a creative solution from Fisher. In 2005 Fisher captured some of the lessons of that effort in his last book (with Daniel Shapiro), the award-winning Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate.  

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that whenever he saw a difficult problem, “it eased my conscience to learn that Roger was already working on it.” Who now will ease our consciences?

Bruce Patton is Co-founder and Distinguished Fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project and a founder and director of Vantage Partners, LLC, a global consulting firm that helps companies negotiate and manage their most critical relationships. He is co-author of “Getting to YES” and “Difficult Conversations.” He can be reached at bpatton@vantagepartners.com.

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Federal Judicial Center
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