A Diplomatic Journey over Thirty Years - Part I

Lessons from Thirty Years of Teaching and Training in International Negotiation Processes

by Paul Meerts

This travelogue is a personal account of 30 years of training: an educator’s memoir that is intended to be a kind of historical overview with some lessons learned. It records experiences and anecdotes from countries in which I have been teaching and training. On the one hand it is humorous, and on the other there are some lessons to be learned. The main lesson: prepare for the unknown and manage expectations, as perceptions determine reality. This article also reflects my personal approach to international negotiation processes: using negotiation lectures and exercises as an instrument to enhance the understanding of students, civil servants, military officers and politicians in international political relations. Of course, I do my utmost to be empathic to the participants with whom I am working, but unlike many other trainers, my focus is on the mechanics and the context of international negotiation processes.


In 1989, I delivered my first training abroad in international negotiation. It was a disaster from the start, but it also provides us with a nice anecdote. Thinking about it gave me the idea to write down the many anecdotes derived from my 30 years as a negotiation trainer. I had been hesitant to put them on paper, as some of them may be seen as quite scandalous. However, family members, students and colleagues pressured me not to be shy and to share my tales with those who are interested in training and research in international negotiation. This series of anecdotes is more or less the continuation and conclusion of articles that I have published during the last decade (Meerts 2012, 2020). My 1989 international seminar was the first and the only one that year, but it had been preceded by twelve years of developing and implementing simulation exercises, six years of which time I had devoted to developing negotiation skills training as well.

My negotiation skills training programmes all started when young Dutch diplomats complained about the negotiations that they had to perform in simulation exercises concluding their three months of courses in diplomacy. They said, ‘you gave us a lot on the content of our exercise, but nothing on the techniques and processes’. Simulation exercises were not new to me: I created the first one when I was twelve years old and I used the ensuing ones with friends until 2008 (Meerts 2008). These simulations were recreational, not educational. They were made for fun, a kind of computer games without computers: with maps, constitutions, ‘journals’ and conferences, etc. These kinds of recreational models can still be found in the Dutch ‘Society for Geofiction’.

The institute where I began working in 1978 had used educational simulations since 1967.

These simulations were conceived by Isaac Lipschits – later a professor at Groningen University and, by chance, my boss in 1974 – who wrote a book on simulations in international politics (Lipschits 1971), the first of its kind in the Netherlands. However, at the time, I had no knowledge about negotiation itself. I had to learn by doing. It greatly helped that I met many experts during the first conference on international negotiation processes of the Processes of International Negotiation (PIN) programme in Laxenburg (Austria) in 1989 and that PIN invited me to join its Steering Committee in 1999.

When my institute merged into the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ in 1983, the development of new exercises became one of the institute’s priorities. I am grateful to many of my collaborators, including Roel Gans, Theo Postma and Wilbur Perlot, who helped me to design and implement these role plays and turn them into tools for teaching and training international negotiation techniques at home and abroad (Meerts 2009). I am also very appreciative of trainers from abroad, such as Pierre Casse, Raymond Saner and John Hemery – along with many other colleagues – who helped me accomplish my 30 years of training. I want to stress here that it is an enormous advantage to and enrichment of negotiation training if trainers with different training methodologies work closely together.

Rome, 1989

NATO Defence College (NDC) in Rome invited my deputy and me – both working at Clingendael – to deliver a simulation game at their premises in Rome. I would use my best exercise of the time: an exercise simulating a meeting of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, in the 1990s transformed into the OSCE) on a ‘Crisis in Yugoslavia’. I wrote this game after doing some research in Belgrade in 1980, discovering that Yugoslavia was a much feebler federation than I had perceived. If it were to fall apart, how would this process unfold? Experts said that my scenario was complete nonsense. However, as time passed, the scenario became reality. I did not need to change my game; it became more realistic by the year. The CSCE meeting negotiated the issues of Security, Economic and Humanitarian Affairs within and among three blocks: NATO; the Warsaw Pact; and the Neutral and Non-Aligned Countries (Meerts 1986, 1989, 1991).

As no direct flight was available, my deputy and I took Alitalia flights to Milan and from there to Rome. When we got on board, my deputy asked me if I was fearful of flying. I said no, but wondered how he, a colonel of the Dutch Airforce, could be afraid of flying. He explained that, as a psychologist, he had never taken to the skies as he did not trust airplanes. At the time, NDC paid for business-class seats, and perhaps it was his fear of flying that encouraged him to take advantage of the all-inclusive bar options we had. In any case, the fact of the matter is that he was completely drunk when we landed in Milan. I managed to get him onto the plane to Rome and, after landing, pushed him into the NDC car with a military driver to take us to our hotel on the Aventine Hill. The next morning, I could not wake him, so I told the hotel reception to wake him at 2 PM and to deliver him to the NDC building for his speech on Crisis Management.

When I arrived at NDC, I was taken to the German commandant, an interesting guy who told me that he had escaped from the Russian Front on horseback, crossing over the Caucasus to the Middle East. I then learned that there had not been enough participants for all the roles I had planned and therefore the NDC staff had removed two member states of the CSCE: Norway and Cyprus. We started the simulation exercise, but after fifteen minutes an adjutant of the NDC commandant arrived, saying ‘stop the exercise!’ It appeared that the Greek colonel in the group of participants had called his Permanent Representative at NATO in Brussels, demanding that Cyprus be put back into the simulation game. Right, no problem: I took the Netherlands out and asked that officer to take the Cyprus role. He accepted and we continued our negotiations on the crisis in Yugoslavia, but for no longer than fifteen minutes, as the aide-de-camp stormed in again, demanding ‘stop the exercise!’ The Turkish colonel in the audience had managed to call his Permanent Representative at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, who had called the commandant in Rome, telling him that Cyprus had to be taken out of the game. This was the end of my first simulation exercise performed abroad. Destroyed by reality.

For ten years, NDC did not ask me to come back. Organisations like NDC and diplomatic academies have a rolling staff; every few years new staff members arrive as the old ones leave. This is a disadvantage for a trainer, as you therefore have to renew your network periodically. But the advantage is that the new people are not aware of the problems and mistakes of the past, meaning that I taught again at NDC from 2001 until 2019, twice a year, without any problems. Lesson learned: every disadvantage has an advantage.

Bucharest, 1990

Clingendael’s Director Joris Voorhoeve was invited by the Dutch Embassy in Bucharest to take some staff with him to teach at Bucharest University, soon after the December 1989 revolution. We had for breakfast what we had for dinner the evening before, and were teaching in classrooms without heating, taking breaks – after hours of crowding together with the students – in the secretary’s room where it was warmer. Nevertheless, we enjoyed it, as did the students. Dutch ambassador Coen Stork was quite a character, with experience in, for example, Cuba. He was a left-winger, which seldom happens in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. When my colleagues had returned to the Netherlands, Ambassador Stork invited me for dinner at his residence. As he had sent the cook home – the guy had to be with his family and the ambassador did not want to be a hindrance – his excellency prepared some bread and butter for me as supper. He had been in contact with the Romanian opposition from the start and spoke Romanian quite well. During and before the revolt against Ceausescu, he had acted as an informal journalist for Dutch television and newspapers: quite abnormal for a diplomat. After the ‘dinner’, he took me to a meeting at which the presidential candidates presented themselves. As we entered the hall, the people rose and applauded him.

A decade later I participated in an EU project together with consultants of the Dutch Governmental Training Institute (ROI). Our role was to help Romania prepare for EU membership. The idea was to have an EU coordination unit at the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but halfway through the project, the Romanians thought it would be better to have a separate Ministry of European Integration (when the project ended, that ministry was dismantled and the whole coordination unit went back to the MFA). Iliescu, President of Romania at the time, invited our team to tell him what we had to offer him, as he wanted his staff to understand the EU as well. My colleagues decided to work through the night in order to present President Iliescu with an attractive project; however, I went to sleep. The next day we were received by Iliescu and his staff. ‘Who is from Clingendael Institute?’ he asked. It was me, so he invited me to sit next to him and to explain what we could do for him. I improvised and he was satisfied, stood up and said that he had to go back to the office. My poor colleagues from the other institute. They had prepared a two-hour presentation with overhead sheets.

At the end of my trip, a former student of mine (Zamfirescu 1996), who had become the head of Romanian External Secret Service, took me to the airport. When the customs officers wanted to search my luggage as usual, she showed them her credentials, stating they were not allowed to do so, and I proceeded to get on board without having my luggage checked. Yet why? I had nothing to hide. However, she wanted to show off, including her Romanian hospitality. A similar thing happened during my first trip to Bucharest in 1967 with a student friend. We got lost in the city, no longer had any money as we had lost our backpacks, and we had no place to sleep, while we had to survive for three days until somebody came to pick us up in a Citroën 2CV. This is not the place to dwell upon that journey, which took us over land from The Hague to Izmir and back. Suffice to note that an old man saw us on the doorstep of his cabin at dusk and said, in German, ‘Welcome; my house is your house’. He even took us to an open-air cinema. Many years later, Ceausescu destroyed that house and the area it was in to build his palace and surroundings.

Two decades after our Bucharest University classes, in 2010, my colleague Wilbur Perlot and I were teaching in Bucharest again, for the so-called ‘European Diplomatic Programme’. My wife Judith called me to say a volcano in Iceland was erupting and there would not be flights back to Amsterdam. To be frank, I did not believe her at first. But indeed, it was true. We decided to be risk averse, went to the train station and booked the last couchette on the ‘Balkans Express’ to Vienna. The conductor passed by and gave us a metal clothes hanger, telling us to put it in the couchette lock when we were going to sleep to prevent an Albanian gang from entering after the Hungarian border to rob us. Indeed, I woke at three in the morning to an enormous noise in the corridor, with men shouting and fighting. What had happened? In the next wagon, they had not been given clothes hangers to lock their cabins. The Albanians tried to steal from the passengers there, but one of them woke up. He was a member of the Romanian soccer team. Lessons learned: liaise with your embassy, never take your return for granted and carry a clothes hanger in order to prevent a cliff-hanger.

Addis Ababa, 1991

At the request of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and paid for by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I travelled to Ethiopia in order to design a Diplomatic Academy at its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I would be refunded for the ticket and therefore bought an economy class seat that appeared to be non-refundable. The UNDP (at least at the time) only compensated for business class. I rebooked my ticket and arrived in Addis Ababa, where the statue of Lenin was still pointing in the direction of the airport in order to help expatriate aid workers from the German Democratic Republic flee the country in case of an anti-Marxist coup d’état. My hotel was the Hilton, opposite the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A government car picked me up and brought me back in the evening. The next day, I told the driver that I could walk a hundred metres to the other side of the street. Wrong! My action would have robbed the man of a day’s salary.

They gave me a room next to that of the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs and I started working, trying first to create a network of civil servants and university professors to forge a context that would allow the future academy to flourish. Wrong! UNITAR told me that I had to write a mission report and only then could I start to communicate with the Ethiopians. I said: I can write that report at home, after I understand the opportunities and pitfalls. Wrong! As I was already there, I thought about organising a seminar on diplomatic negotiation in order to get to know the diplomats at the ministry. Good idea! As one of the diplomats told me, ‘we have to revolutionise this ministry’. Seeing the posters on the wall with revolutionaries waving AK machine guns, my answer was: ‘perhaps it is better to evolutionise the Ministry?’ Anyway, when I returned to Ethiopia the following year, I walked up to my old room and a kind of panic ensued: why did this European come near the minister’s office? Did I want to kill him? Was this a terrorist attack? Lesson learned: check the local customs, both of drivers and the ministers.

Paul Meerts was Senior Associate at the Clingendael Institute until 2018. He is a founding member of the Netherlands Negotiation Network and has also been active in the field of international negotiations as a member of the Process of International Negotiation (PIN) Steering Committee and a member of the Advisory Board of the Journal of International Negotiation. In 2001, he was awarded the title of Doctor Honoris Causa at the

School of Foreign Service of the National University of Mongolia.

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