Remembering Roger Fisher and Our Stage of Human Development

Professor Roger Fisher, the most pre-eminent pioneer of mediation and negotiation, died this week at the age of 90, and here is a good obituary.

I especially like these excerpts:

Over his career, Professor Fisher eagerly brought his optimistic can-do brand of problem solving to a broad array of conflicts across the globe, from the hostage crisis in Iran to the civil war in El Salvador. His emphasis was always on addressing the mutual interests of the disputing parties instead of what separated them. As he would tell his students, “Peace is not a piece of paper, but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.” It did not matter to Professor Fisher whether the warring parties reached out to him or not; he would assume they needed his help. “Most of the time he was not invited. He would invite himself,” Elliott Fisher said. “Our sense growing up was that he would read the newspaper and think, ‘Oh, shoot, there is something to fix.’ ”

Professor Fisher is credited with helping initiate the summit meeting between the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1985, convincing Reagan staff members that just meeting to brainstorm and build relations was more important than settling a specific agenda.

In 1979, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance went to Professor Fisher’s house on Martha’s Vineyard before the meeting at Camp David that would lead to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Professor Fisher suggested to Mr. Vance the “single negotiating text” method that was used to bring the parties together, said Bruce M. Patton, who wrote “Getting to Yes” with Professor Fisher and worked on many diplomatic projects with him. The strategy involved having President Jimmy Carter alone be responsible for writing solutions and letting the other leaders shape the treaty through a back-and-forth critiquing process.

His upbeat approach to some of the world’s most intractable problems led some critics to assert that he was unrealistic. But Mr. Patton said Professor Fisher recognized and relished the “complexity and irrationality” of the situations he addressed.

On the eve of World War II, Professor Fisher attended Harvard University. Upon graduating he volunteered for the Army, where he served from 1942 to 1946 doing weather reconnaissance in both the North Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Four of his eight college roommates died in combat; that, as well as seeing the aftermath of battle, persuaded him to dedicate his life to helping avoid war.


What is apparent from the obituary, but obvious to anyone who knew him, is how much Roger exuded that confidence of Harvard elites, and American leaders, that has both been admired and admonished globally, that has been a source of optimism in the face of impossible circumstances and also a source of alienation and distance between American thinkers and actors and others. I come from a side of the field of conflict resolution that has emphasized local cultures, religions, psychological issues, that is far more receptive and encouraging of approaches uniquely tailored to each situation, each set of cultural actors. I stand by those differences that I had with him. And yet I always loved him in some fashion.

I loved Roger’s courage coming out of World War II, the worst era of Western civilization’s capacity for human degradation, with a determination to apply all his brain power to alternatives to war. That was a gift to this world. I admired the fact that as much has he exuded that annoying confidence of the Harvard style, he wrote in a way that was ten times more clear than the academic pretense into which I was schooled as a child and a graduate student. It is for this reason that his books and speeches reached millions rather than thousands, and the world is better for it.

Roger had an urge to simplicity, to razor sharp analysis of the essential problems of a situation or of a personality, and then he would devise his own ways around the challenge. I remember once we were at a gathering together, and I asked him what he thought the essential challenge was in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He answered with brilliant candor and psychological insight, not by holding forth with large academic words but by recounting two conversations he had with two essential actors in the conflict, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat.

Roger asked Sharon in 1970 what his game-plan was, his strategy. Sharon said, “Well we are going to make it extremely uncomfortable for the Arabs to stay in Judea and Samaria, as well as Israel. Eventually they will leave.” And that is just what he did, recounts Roger. He asked Arafat what his plan was. Arafat said, “They will lock us up in houses, but we are very good at making babies.” From Roger’s perspective, both had a rational plan, very destructive one, and he was facing and pondering the essential challenge.

It is not that I agreed with Roger’s every perspective or analysis or conclusions, but I loved the twinkle in his eye as he pondered these matters. It expressed exactly what the writer of the obituary said, it intimated the inner life of a man who said to himself, ‘I think I can do something to stop this war.’

That is enough for me when it comes to evaluating the life and contribution of a man in this world, the twinkle in the eye that says, ‘I think I can do something to stop this war’. That is a life that was lived well and deserving of our utmost admiration and respect.

This approach, inside Roger’s soul, speaks to something even deeper about our moment in human history. There are many people who still doubt that we can abolish war in human history, or that we can shift the urge to violence and war inside the souls of so many people. No matter how many times we cite evidence of cultures that have in fact done this, the human mind’s fears, not to mention the profit seeking motives of popular media, always shifts us to the negative, to the worst examples of human capacity for violence. But most people on this planet lead peaceful lives, controlling their darkest impulses, while exercising great capacity for compassion.

We are a few hundred years now into an enlightened set of beliefs and scientific practices that have claimed that we can do much to advance human life in ways that were never imaginable in human history. We have done so in astonishing ways that have brought us to the moon and stars and massively increased the average human lifespan. But one of the keys to the future of life on this planet is the capacity to prevent and undo the wasteful and tragic damage of war.

This next stage of human development will require thousands of Roger Fishers having the courage to pioneer new thinking, new and bold experimentation, continuous learning, as we race for the time it will take to heal the effects of war and redirect human energies to life preserving and life enhancing activities. The massive expansion in conflict resolution programs around the world is testimony to how many young people want to do just that.

I look forward to witnessing revolutionary developments in the human capacity to prevent war, to heal the wounds of previous wars, to build empathy and compassion across civilizations, and to harness the rational self-interests of millions of human beings to discover the world together, to flourish and build wealth together, and I am grateful that Roger helped point us in a good direction.






© Marc Gopin