Elevating Your ADR Game – Useful Insights and Perspectives – “Ambassador for Peace – How Theodore Roosevelt Won the Nobel Peace Prize”

By James W. Borkowski, Esq. | New York Law Journal | June 22, 2023

This article is the fourth in a series of discussions based upon books written by experts in the field of negotiation tactics and conflict resolution. These works are by authors who bring a unique perspective about mediation and conflict resolution. The essence of each publication and the focus of these writings are my observations about how each author's experiences can enhance and sharpen your own negotiating skills when mediating or arbitrating a case. In this piece, I address how these publications have helped me hone my mediation skills and how they might be of service to you.

The Book: Ambassador for Peace: How Theodore Roosevelt Won the Nobel Peace Prize By Stanley Wien (Lulu Publishing Services 2017)

Theodore Roosevelt packed several lifetimes into a single life: North Dakota Badlands cowboy, boxer, hunter, Rough Rider, Police Commissioner, New York politician, and United States President. And what's more, he was a skillful negotiator. At each stage, Roosevelt employed determination and single-mindedness to conquer all obstacles.

As President, Roosevelt is mostly remembered for his muscular “Speak softly and carry a big stick” diplomacy. As a show of force, he ordered the United States Navy's new White Fleet on a journey around the globe, making courtesy visits, and sending the implied message that America could now project military power anywhere on the globe.

What is less known about Roosevelt was that beneath his Rough Rider persona, he was a nuanced intellectual. As President, Roosevelt pioneered new methods of international conflict resolution, based not on force, but on peaceful resolution through a third-party neutral. Before Roosevelt, peace negotiations between warring nations were held directly. However, Roosevelt was a proponent of mediating and arbitrating international disputes. He was an early, ardent supporter of the newly created international tribunal at The Hague, which continues to arbitrate disputes to this day.

The impact education and travel had on Teddy Roosevelt

Roosevelt's years of education and travel taught him the nuanced mindset important for effective negotiating. His lifelong travels and education also gave Roosevelt foresight into the rapidly changing world at the dawn of the modern era, and a wide circle of diplomatic and journalism contacts.

Roosevelt was fluent in three languages, and read voraciously on history, science, military strategy, and international politics.

He was, when necessary, a subtle, effective negotiator, with sophisticated conflict resolution skills. In 1902, Roosevelt negotiated the end of a disastrous coal strike in Pennsylvania, moving the U.S. government, for the first time, from strikebreaker to peacemaker in industrial disputes. But Roosevelt's crowning diplomatic achievement as Presidential negotiator was his successful mediation of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Russo-Japanese war

After opening itself to the West in the mid-1800s, Japan rapidly became a military and economic power. Japan expanded its markets and political influence into China and Korea, where several European powers, including Russia, had already established spheres of influence. Russia was determined to expand its imperial presence in Asia and needed warm water ports for its navy and maritime trade. Russia's port at Vladivostok froze most of the year, leading Russia to lease a warm water port from the Chinese, at Port Arthur, Manchuria.

Meanwhile, the United States was growing as a military and industrial power. From its founding, however, the United States had a tradition of isolationism, and avoided international entanglements. Theodore Roosevelt believed that it was time for America to lead on the world stage.

The colliding expansion of the Russian and Japanese empires intensified, with the Japanese and Russian governments attempting to directly negotiate with each other a resolution of their conflicting interests in China and Korea, but, ultimately, talks failed. After negotiations broke down, Japan launched a surprise attack on Russia at Port Arthur in 1904. Russia's European allies, as well as Japan's allies, risked being drawn into the conflict.

Although vastly outmatched, Japan dealt Russia a series of humiliating military losses on land and at sea. Russian Czar Nicholas II was on the verge of complete military defeat. Japan, however, was running out of troops and ammunition. The costs of waging war were pushing both combatants to the brink of bankruptcy.

President Roosevelt, The Mediator

Both sides wished to negotiate peace but feared losing honor by being the first to request peace talks. Volunteering himself, Roosevelt publicly requested that both sides meet, thus allowing Japan and Russia to save face. Japan and Russia agreed, and the United States agreed to act as host, raising America's world stature. The peace talks were held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the summer of 1905, to avoid the sweltering Washington, D.C. heat.

Surprisingly, although Roosevelt served as mediator for the talks, Roosevelt was never physically at Portsmouth, remaining at his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Roosevelt communicated through telegrams, sources, and personal meetings at his home.

In organizing the mediation, Roosevelt recognized that only a third-party neutral could convince Japan and Russia that a settlement made more sense for both countries, rather than continuing a ruinous war. Roosevelt knew that negotiating is not a zero-sum gain exercise. Roosevelt was way ahead of his time and did not adhere to the winner-take-all approach to dispute resolution.

Japan arrived at the Portsmouth talks having the military advantage. Japan listed a series of demands to end the war, including reparations, Japanese control of Korea, and Russian withdrawal from Manchuria. The Russian delegation's strategy was largely defensive. Rather than make settlement demands, Russia simply responded to Japan's demands by modifying, accepting, or rejecting them.

After several weeks, the negotiations reached an impasse. Roosevelt had spent months preparing for the mediation and had already developed close relationships on both sides. In doing so, Roosevelt developed the most important resource for any mediator: trust. As Stanley Wien writes: “Trust is the binding glue in a bargaining relationship.”

Although he was from an aristocratic background, Roosevelt was an effective, plainspoken communicator, who abandoned flowery diplomatic parlance. Roosevelt's letters during the peace talks to the Russian Czar and the Japanese Emperor are strikingly blunt. This is especially so, since the Czar and the Emperor were considered gods in their countries.

Reaching a Resolution

Through separate meetings at Oyster Bay with members of each delegation (the first breakout rooms), Roosevelt improvised and made recommendations for alternative solutions. Roosevelt also made extensive use of his backchannel network of mutual connections to persuade the leaders of each country.

In addition to having the trust of both sides, President Roosevelt used another effective mediation tool: to be persistent and keep both sides talking, even when settlement seems elusive. Roosevelt was an effective listener and was able to address each party's concerns.

After weeks of negotiations, Russia and Japan reached a settlement. The Japanese public believed it had given away hard-won territorial gains. The Czar complained that he had been tricked into a settlement, although he later admitted that the treaty benefitted Russia. As the saying in mediation goes, sometimes a good settlement is one where each side is equally unhappy.

How Roosevelt Impacted Me as a Neutral

Roosevelt's approach to the art of international mediation is instructive for successful mediation today: preparation, trust, and persistence. Roosevelt studied the growing conflict between Russia and Japan for years, reading voraciously on the subject. Roosevelt had the foresight to appoint close confidantes as diplomats in Russia and Japan, so that he had trusted, skilled representatives who could convey his messages directly to the Czar and the Emperor.

As part of his longsighted preparation, Roosevelt cultivated relationships not only with Japanese and Russian leaders, but also with European diplomats who would later assist in the Portsmouth peace negotiations. All these relationships built the trust which would be essential in concluding the peace agreement.

I believe that the “Secret Sauce” of my mediation practice is developing trust with the parties. I try to avoid the usual “mediation ping pong”, with stratospheric settlement demands, and lowball offers. The parties go back and forth in small increments, which frequently leads to an impasse. In the first round of private caucusing at a mediation, I establish trust, and ask the attorneys to give me a good idea of their settlement goal. Most attorneys are forthright. Hopefully, after the first round of breakout rooms, we are in the same settlement universe, and can settle the case from there. This approach is highly successful.


James Borkowski, Esq. is a litigator with more than 35 years of trial experience. He serves as a Mediator and Arbitrator at NAM (National Mediation and Arbitration) and has been consistently voted a Top Ten neutral in the New York Law Journal “Best Of” Survey.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to e-mail me at jborkowski@namadr.com