Bridge of Spies: A Universal Lesson in Negotiation
Glienicke Bridge

Bridge of Spies: A Universal Lesson in Negotiation

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Let’s put aside historical accuracy. Any of the historical “revisions” in Stephen Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies, do not affect the brilliant but simple art of negotiation masterminded by the main character of the film and star of the negotiation.

As the film opens, lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) works as a partner in his own New York law firm. Before this, Donovan earned an impressive reputation as general counsel in government war offices instituted for purposes of World War II. From there, he participated in the famous Nuremberg trials. In fairness, then, understand that Donovan was not your worker-bee tax attorney plucked from a mound of IRS client files.

The US government turns to Donovan to negotiate a trade between us and the USSR–one of our spies for one of theirs. Rudolf Abel was a convicted KGB- -Soviet Committee for State Security–spy in US custody. Gary Frances Powers was a pilot flying an American U-2 spy plane shot down over the USSR. The trade-off of Abel for Powers occurs at Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge, a dividing line between East and West Europe. Or Communism and Democracy.

But there’s a third captive Donovan wants to add to the exchange Frederic Pryor, an American whom the U.S. has no interest in.  Pryor was a graduate student studying in free West Berlin right at the time the Berlin Wall was going up.  During a visit to his East Berlin girlfriend, he was caught as the last bricks were being put into place and arrested as a spy.

The film is about three unlucky players caught in the web of three governments. Three governments because at this moment in time, East Germany or the German Democratic Republic (GDR) assuming autonomy, had not yet been entirely cowed by the USSR. This story needs a center, and it is Donovan.

Donovan insists on an exchange of two of ours for one of theirs. Unexpectedly a two-party negotiation turned into a three-way negotiation. Think of this as being ‘triangulated.’ All the U.S. really cares about is Powers. The USSR , demonstrating it’s imposition of power on the free world and East Germany, only cares about Abel. The GDR, not yet under the absolute authority of the USSR, cares about respect.

East Germany will trade Pryor—if it gets the official recognition it feels it deserves, in other words, a seat at the table. This, the USSR will not do.

It is classic in triangulated negotiations for fingers to be points in all directions. Call it “the other person did it” tactic.

In the end, our hero Donovan succeeds: freeing both Americans in exchange for a Russian. How? Donovan did not do much wheeling and dealing. He handled both parties with respect. But he did not turn over the goods. He waited it out. He stepped away. the clock was ticking. The U.S., the most powerful party in this threesome, was not happy. Here is where skill meets up with instinct—and some luck. This left the USSR and GDR at a stand-off. Thus, the second most powerful player in this transaction imposed its will on a country that would soon lose any autonomy. This negotiation within a negotiation had nothing to do with the US.  Most likely, if Prior had been a political commodity of the USSR, he would not have been turned over. But he was to serve as a lesson to the GDR.

Donovan took the high road. Here’s how, in his own words in an article he wrote, Strangers on a Bridge, that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. Donovan quotes himself speaking to US envoy, Steven Schischkin.

“I have been accepting your stated position that any action by the East German government is wholly beyond your authority or control. East Germany is granting clemency to Pryor in recognition of two facts: that the Soviet is releasing Powers because of its ‘humane feelings’ and the United States is responding by freeing Abel. In view of your government’s stated position of the independence of East Germany, why is it any of your concern what the East Germans—or any other independent government—may decide to do in recognition of the commendable Soviet-US accord? If for ‘humane feelings’ the East Germans decide to release Pryor or a herd of sheep, on the same bridge and at the same time as the Powers-Abel exchange, how is this a matter which in any way concerns you or your government?”

Schischkin almost smiled, but he declined to give an answer.

What is the take-away? If there are multiple parties in a negotiation size up the relationship of one party to each other. There will always be nuances or subscripts not intended to be part of the process. They arise not necessarily in the control of the negotiator. Exercise patience and self-control allow room for the parties to save face. Stay the high road. We would say today to “save face” with the parties.  This is what Donovan means when he refers to our “human feelings.” Feelings count in negotiation.  Donovan was a hero to emulate.