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Book Review: Great Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World by Fredrik Stanton

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As much as wars, invasions and military expertise changed history and shaped world borders, it was often the endless negotiations and avoided conflicts that bore the greatest significance and impact on later generations.  In fact, conflicts often ended, not with the stalemate or defeat of armed forces, but in meeting rooms as the powers negotiated withdrawal and armistice.

Great Negotiations: Agreements That Changed the Modern World is a collection of eight vignettes focusing on negotiations that changed the course of history.  Author Fredrik Stanton has selected eight major episodes in modern diplomacy, and he has gone to great lengths to describe the personalities of the key players, what each party held at stake and the influences impacting on their decisions.

The cross-section of modern negotiations includes Benjamin Franklin's appeal to the French Court for support for the American revolution in 1778; the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803; the Congress of Vienna following Napoleon's defeat in 1814-1815; the Portsmouth Treaty that formally ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905; the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War in 1919; the Egyptian-Israeli Armistice Agreement in 1949; the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 which eventually facilitated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

Great Negotiations is an extremely well researched and well written book.  Stanton has utilized letters, diaries, transcripts and a host of historical texts in drawing up these vignettes and the level of detail in the chapters dating back to the 18th century is on par with events that took place within the last century.  It would be reasonable to expect that a book like this would be dry and a mere collection of fact, but it is not.  For all of its detail, Great Negotiations reads like fiction, and I found myself racing to the end of each vignette as the tension mounted and the stakes increased.  I was rather sad to reach the end of each chapter, thinking that the next wouldn’t be merely as riveting, and I was pleased to be proven wrong in each case.

Stanton chose his eight subjects carefully.  He focused carefully on major negotiations involving key players that impacted on the state of the world today.  The negotiations in the book were all elaborate feats of strategy and diplomacy and were "negotiations" in the purest sense of the word.  To this end, Stanton was keen to avoid those meetings that were a pure dictation of terms or that simply consolidated the situation as it had emerged.

This is a book that will appeal to both casual historians and those more conversant in international relations and foreign policy.  It is certainly on a level that could be followed by beginners in the field, but it is also text that allows comparison across the many years and situations.  For example, it is interesting to see how the negotiations of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were slowed down by the snail’s pace at which messages took to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  Communication today is lightning fast, and the effects of this were perhaps most obvious as matters during the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened dizzily to spin out of control as varying bits of information spun around the globe.  Today, we have the Internet and video conferencing and couldn’t be further removed from the days when letters and messages took weeks or even months to reach their destinations.

Likewise, in choosing these eight events, Stanton is able to show how the United States of America matured from appearing, hat in hand, as revolutionaries before the French Court to facilitators in negotiations in Europe and Asia before finally becoming the world power that was the subject of major negotiations involving nuclear power in the 20th century.

Great Negotiations: Agreements That Changed the Modern World is certainly recommended and gives an excellent introduction into some of the great triumphs and failures of modern diplomacy.  I will certainly keep an eye out for future publications from Fredrik Stanton, as he has an excellent writing style that brings to life the events of the past.

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About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is a blogger, serial expat and eternal tourist living and working in London. Aside from writing at Blogcritics, she blogs about travel and London at Emm in London, entertainment and media at Addicted to Media and war crimes, genocide and social justice over at A Passion to Understand. Mandy has continued to write for Blogcritics under the new profile Mandy Southgate.