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Quick….who was the recipient of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize? Until a few days ago, I had no clue and I’m not proud of that. That’s one reason I went to see and hear the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, as he took part in two panel discussions at HBS a few days ago.

Ahtisaari won the coveted Nobel for his work in ending the hostilities between the province of Aceh and the government of Indonesia, a struggle that had claimed 50,000 lives during a 30-year war. Before that, he was a key figure in negotiating Namibia’s independence from South Africa and was the chief UN negotiator in Kosovo in 2005-2006. Talk about making a difference in the world!

With the United States mired in partisan and dysfunctional political gridlock, negotiation seems a dying art — in Washington at least — and neither this nation nor any other can move forward without it. “I can’t make people stop fighting if they don’t want to,” Ahtisaari declared. In the Indonesia-Aceh situation, Muslim factions embraced the authority and guidance of a non-Muslim Westerner. Talk about being open and putting differences aside: maybe Republicans and Democrats could learn something from that.

At the event, a joint presentation of HLS, HBS, and the Harvard Kennedy School, Ahtisaari received “The Great Negotiator” award, given annually by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. HBS professor James Sebenius and HBS associate professor Deepak Malhotra, joined by HLS and HKS colleagues, took part in panel discussions on the Kosovo and Aceh/Indonesia negotiations. Sebenius and Malhotra are members of the HBS Negotiations, Organizations & Markets Unit, which has a legendary history built by distinguished past practitioners such as game theorist Howard Raiffa, originator of the “decision tree,” and managerial economist Robert Schlaifer.

These men were pioneers in the art and science of negotiation in both the business and diplomatic realms. By nature private and confidential, negotiation shuns the limelight and thus is either unknown to or ignored by much of the public. It’s good to be reminded of its role in business and human affairs and of the often unsung, remarkable people who make it work.

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