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Strategy 21: Negotiate While Advancing (The 33 Strategies of War)

What people failed to take from you through direct battle, they will try to take from you under the guise of morality and fairness. Do not be taken in, negotiation is about moving for power, always put yourself in a position of strength. Make the other side settle on your terms. 

The more you take, the more you can give back in frivolous concessions. Your reputation must be tough and uncompromising to gain the psychological advantage even before the negotiations commence.

War by Other Means

The Peloponnesian War of 404 B.C saw the defeat of Athens by Sparta. Athens declined soon after. Many citizens, including the great orator Demosthenes dreamed of a revival of the once dominant Athens.

In 359 B.C, Periccas, the king of Macedonia was killed in battle and a power struggle emerged for his succession. To the Athenians, Macedonia was a barbaric land, it was useful only because it helped the Athenians secure corn supplies and gold from its outposts. One such outpost was the city of Amphipolis, which used to be an Athenian colony, but now was under Macedonian control. The Athenian politicians backed Argaeus to succeed the throne – if he won, he would be indebted to Athens and return to them Amphipolis.

But the Athenians backed the wrong horse, Argaeus lost to Phillip, Perdiccas’s 24 year old brother. But Phillip stepped back instead of pushing his advantage, making Amphipolis independent, and he released without ransom the Athenian prisoners that were captured in battle. He even pushed for an alliance with Athens and conspired to eventually retake Amphipolis and exchange it with Athens for another city of interest under Athenian control.

Peace seemed to be brokered between the two sides, but a few years later, there was a power struggle in Athens. Philip marched on and captured Amphipolis to take advantage. The Athenians sent envoys to negotiate as per their agreement, but Philip rescinded his offer. The envoys couldn’t do anything because of troubles back home, so they had to accept these conditions.

Demosthenes came forward to rail against the duplicitous Philip and warn about the danger he posed. A few years later, Philip tried to take the pass at Thermopylae – the narrow gateway that controlled movement between central and southern Greece, Athens had sent an army to defeat it. Philip retreated and Athens rejoiced in victory.

Over the years, another cautious peace emerged. And the Athenians wearily watched Philip take over more territories while conceding some minor states to Athens. Philip eventually negotiated an alliance with the Athenians, and agreed to fight a common enemy, the Persians. Philip died, and his son, Alexander, led the Hellenic league into war and created an empire. Athens remained Macedonia’s most loyal ally.

King Philip never meant to keep his promise in the beginning, but this bought him time and friendship and kept the Athenians out of his hair while he fought other enemies. He bought loyalty from the Athenians by negotiating a generous peace. He never cared about honouring his word. Why should he? The Athenians never would, and he knew this. Trust and friendship were qualities for sale, and he would later purchase them for the right price.

Earning the trust of others is not a moral issue but a strategic one. People will break their word if it suits them and will find any excuse to justify their behavior. If you are weak, use negotiations to buy time and delay battle until you are ready. Do not concede to be nice, but to maneuver.

Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest…. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them. Nor have legitimate grounds ever failed a prince who wished to show colorable excuse for the nonfulfillment of his promise.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1469-1527)

People often try to be nice and conciliatory to others because they expect the same in return. But experience proves otherwise. Those you treat well will take you for granted, they will see you as weak and exploit you.

Being generous does not elicit gratitude but creates either a spoiled child or someone who resents behavior perceived as charity.

Read The 33 Strategies of War

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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