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Kumar, Yash --- "Can a Principled Negotiations Framework Explain the Participants' Strategies and Outcomes in the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference?" [2016] UNSWLawJlStuS 2; (2016) UNSWLJ Student Series No 16-02




The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 was a pivotal point in history. Ostensibly convened by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to promote free trade in West Africa,[1] it precipitated the partition of the entire continent into European colonies.[2] The driving interests of European policymakers in dividing Africa were economic gain, prestige, military strategy, diplomatic advantage and social pressures for imperialism.[3] Applying a principled negotiations framework based on Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes,[4] I will unpack the strategies of Great Britain, France, Germany and the Belgian King, Leopold II, leading up to and during the Conference itself. As the interests of African nations were ignored during the conference[5] by the participants in favour of their mutual interest of bringing Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation to Africa,[6] they do not appear in my analysis of the negotiations. As a result, I will not consider the disastrous humanitarian ramifications of colonialism, which were accelerated by the Berlin Conference.[7] Instead, I will focus on how the Conference was a reflection of European politics and power struggles, with Africa a proxy territory for the conflict. The relative decline of Britain as a ‘Great Power’ and their desperation to protect their position in Egypt[8] will be contrasted with Germany’s arrival as a major European player just 13 years after unification.[9] Further, I will outline how France was motivated mostly by a desire for international prestige, a common occurrence in international negotiation contexts.[10] Finally, I will highlight how it was Leopold, with his rational[11] and principled approach, who ended up claiming the greatest slice of his metaphorical ‘magnificent cake’ of Africa[12] and the most satisfactory outcome despite his relatively weak position.


Principled negotiation refers to a set of strategies and tools popularised by Fisher and Ury that shifts the focus of negotiation to deciding issues on their merits rather than adopting steadfast positions.[13] They hold that if these skills are utilised effectively, they lead to efficient agreements that do not damage the relationships between parties.[14] They advocate focusing on interests, generating a variety of options, separating people from the problem and evaluating results using an objective standard.[15] Further, they encourage a nuanced communication strategy,[16] having a Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)[17] and clarifying the type of commitment you are willing to make.[18] Collectively, these have been referred to as the Seven Elements of Principled Negotiation and form the basis of my analysis below. Max Bazerman refers to a similar set of strategies as ‘rational negotiation’,[19] outlining that there are a number of cognitive biases that attract people towards a position-based negotiations strategy that delivers suboptimal outcomes.[20] Similarly, G. Richard Shell calls the tools advocated by Fisher and Ury ‘the problem-solver approach to negotiations’, and outlines their usefulness in complex situations such as in international diplomacy.[21] Their research will supplement my Fisher-based analysis, as will work on global negotiation by Jeswald Salacuse[22] and Arthur Lall.[23] The latter was a frequent participant in UN Negotiations on behalf of India, and thus provides insight into the motives of sovereign nations, (as opposed to individuals) during negotiations. [24]


A Overview

Britain, as the dominant 19th Century mercantile and naval power, adopted a hard position-based negotiation strategy, failing to prioritise their interests and ignoring the value of relationships. Consequently, they retained little bargaining power during the conference negotiations, costing them dearly. During the 19th Century, the British had developed an ‘informal empire’ across Africa, granting economic control without the expense of actual territorial possession.[25] Their traders dominated in Sudan[26] and West Africa on the Niger River,[27] and the government controlled Zanzibar in East Africa as an exclusive client-state.[28] This provided them with naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean, protecting their Indian Empire.[29] More importantly, in 1882 Britain had occupied Egypt at the expense of France, providing them with access via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean as well as a prospective naval base in the Mediterranean.[30] This would protect them against the Russians who were pressuring the Ottoman Turks for access to the Mediterranean via the Dardanelles.[31] Undermining their position in Egypt were massive debts owed by the Egyptian government to the British Crown. These required a private bank bailout to avoid passing the cost of default onto the British taxpayer.[32] Complicating matters, this bailout required France and Germany to subordinate their own loans to the Egyptians, an unlikely outcome due to the French affront over the British occupation.[33]

Britain had also established a semi-autonomous colonial government at the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), who had their own ambitions for expansion.[34] Britain’s informal empire was however vulnerable to any shifts in the European power balance, particularly to the French, who were angered by their displacement in Egypt.[35] Although African trade was relatively trivial to the metropolitan economy,[36] Britain was somewhat motivated by prestige[37] a typical interest in international negotiations.[38] The British had assumed that their control of Africa was a ‘law of nature’,[39] and were determined to keep the French out of North Africa beyond Algeria.[40] They were also facing competition for palm oil in West Africa from the Germans.[41] The Royal Navy’s historical aggression in defending British trade was a sore point for other European powers. They began to make diplomatic manoeuvres once it became publicly known in 1884 that most of the British fleet was rapidly becoming obsolete.[42] Against this background, I will determine the British interests first, as these generally outline the real issues.[43]

B Interests

The British had four major interests in order of priority:

1. Naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean

2. Preserving trade hegemony in West Africa due to electoral pressure

3. Minimising the cost of administration

4. Satisfying the Cape Government in South Africa

Identifying priorities allows us to determine which issues may have been conceded in order to preserve crucial interests.[44] Due to the naval power derived from occupying Egypt, it is clear that maintaining the status quo here was a ‘vital interest’ for the British, one which would persistently motivate them[45] and be a non-negotiable issue.[46] Less vital but still important, the preservation of trading power was more likely driven by commercial interests who held political sway. These ‘ghost negotiators’, who are unseen players that strongly impact party’s negotiation strategy, regularly tilt governments in diplomacy,[47] who yield to them due to electoral pressure. Zwier notes that lowest-cost outcomes are common priorities in global negotiations to minimise risk,[48] but here a cost reduction was also based on electoral factors, as colonial administrations had to be funded by the taxpayer.[49] Finally, as an existing colony, the Cape was subject to the ‘endowment effect’. This means that the British attached value to their position there simply because they framed it as belonging to them. [50] With these interests in mind, I will now focus on the alternatives. Identifying the British BATNA will provide a baseline of their relative negotiation power[51] and clarify how the British planned to maximise their assets.[52]

C Alternatives

Without negotiating, it seemed unlikely that the British would be able to satisfy their interests. With both France and Germany challenging them various parts of Africa, Britain’s only real alternative was to declare war, which was an extremely costly option and one ending in possible defeat due to the state of their navy. This option is considered a last resort in diplomacy[53] and would have permanently damaged their relationships with the other European powers. Given that ongoing relationships are especially critical in international diplomacy due to their ability to build trust,[54] it seems unlikely that the British were prepared to risk war for the sake of relatively minor trading interests in West Africa, and as yet no particular challenge had been made by the French as to Egypt. The British would also not have defended the Cape Colony if it meant sacrificing Egypt, as this was clearly the highest interest. With virtually no alternative, it was apparent that the British lacked leverage, or the power to obtain an agreement on their own terms, [55] undermining their negotiation strategy.[56]

D Relationships and Positions

Ultimately, out of desperation, the British signed a Treaty with the Portuguese recognising the latter’s historical control of the Congo River in West Africa in exchange for free navigation rights.[57] This was based off Portugal’s colonial territory in Angola, at the south of the Congo River.[58] I believe that as a result, Britain committed Bazerman’s first decision-making bias by escalating their commitment to an initial position and refusing to yield from it.[59] Clearly, they felt that doing so would block the French out of West Africa, since Britain already controlled the other major African river, the Niger. The British however did not consider the damaging impact of this treaty on their relationship with other countries, as there was an international distaste of Portugal’s colonial slavery practices.[60] They also did not recognise the contempt of Portugal from almost all British voters due to perceptions of Portuguese corruption.[61] Despite the government’s own ideological stance against slavery, it is clear that these had little influence in the face of material gain, a frequent scenario in international negotiations.[62] By failing to recognise their primary interest in protecting Egypt and attempting to focus on multiple positions, the British locked themselves into a poor position.[63] They compromised their ability to negotiate rationally due to the illusion of superiority,[64] and thought that they could dictate terms to other European powers. Consequently, the outright refusal of other states to recognise the treaty[65] and accompanying hostility culminated in Germany and France vetoing the Egyptian bailout plans.[66] Everything was going wrong at the same time,[67] and a decline in Britain’s relative military power rapidly developed the Foreign Office’s penchant for negotiation.[68] In my view, potential obliteration on two of their major interests in the absence of negotiation and growing electoral concerns drove the British to attend the Berlin Conference.


A Overview

France fared significantly better than Britain by focusing on their interests and building a relationship with Germany. They had historically regarded North Africa and the Western Sudan as the border regions of a second Mediterranean frontier. [69] Having already subjugated Algeria,[70] they were determined to restore their prestige as a Great Power by expanding their territory via a trans-Saharan railway.[71] France’s reputation had been badly tarnished by defeat in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War and further undermined by the British occupation of Egypt.[72] With a domestic economic depression, the French government saw the prospect of new interior African markets[73] and potentially limitless resource wealth[74] as the cure for their ailing economy.[75] The French rapidly expanded into the Western Sudan and consolidated their control as far as Lake Chad by 1883,[76] but sensed that greater prizes lay further south in the Congo basin due to claims by their explorer Brazza, who had negotiated treaties there with local chiefs.[77] His work was a source of national pride and promised great economic opportunity for France.[78]. This perception of prestige also drove them to solidify control over Madagascar.[79] As their naval strength approached that of the British by 1884,[80] the French found their chance to retaliate for previous injustices if they could find a suitable ally.

B Interests

The French were mainly interested in restoring their prestige through a massive colonial empire. Driving this case was domestic economic weakness, causing the government to focus the population’s attention[81] on their work at remedying France’s international reputation through African expansion. A secondary interest would thus be maximising economic benefits for the metropolitan state. France had a sense of comfort in early 1884 due to their leverage over Britain in Egypt[82] but felt the psychological pressure of scarcity in the Congo, as the Belgian King Leopold was also staking his claims there. This scarcity threatened to undermine their secondary interest, which I believe induced a level of panic and triggered them to consider alternatives and options.[83]

C Alternatives, Options and Legitimacy

Without an ally, war with Britain was an unreasonable alternative for France. Military force was an inappropriate BATNA due to France’s improbable chance of success[84]. Their geographical proximity to Britain softened their deep rivalry to an extent,[85] and forced them to seek other avenues to restore their prestige. They found it via an entente with Germany. Bismarck had been pursuing a strategy of constructive ambiguity,[86] emphasising the potential of Franco-German cooperation and downplaying their still-recent war. Accentuating this common advantage against Britain greatly thawed diplomatic relations and generated a sense of equality between the two sides less than 15 years after the end of the Franco-Prussian War.[87] By dovetailing their interests with Germany, France found that their plans in Africa apparently did not overlap, and they could thus work together for mutual gain.[88] This positive relationship disentangled their substantive interests[89] and built French trust in Germany through constant information sharing.[90] It allowed both France and Germany to focus on the procedure of forcing Britain to negotiate, which was crucial to both of their interests. Following the veto of the Egyptian bailout, the French felt that Bismarck’s proposed international conference was an elegant option to deal with the negotiation process, consolidating their potential power.[91] A Conference would have a public result, enhancing any potential commitment and guaranteeing British performance.[92] Shell considers the reliability of a commitment just as important as the agreement itself,[93] while Zwier finds transparent solutions more sustainable because they enhance legitimacy.[94] Applying this concept to Fisher and Ury’s concept of legitimacy as evaluating outcomes with objective criteria,[95] I believe that France’s interests in restoring their reputation were certainly better served by having their claims in Africa recognised through an international conference. This allowed them to enter Berlin optimistic that their new alliance with the Germans would see them trump Britain. Simultaneously, they had managed a satisfactory agreement with Leopold regarding Congo, which I will discuss in further detail after analysing the German strategy.


A Overview

Germany skilfully developed a principled negotiations strategy by considering all of the parties’ interests, weakening their opposition’s alternatives and extracting substantial leverage by insisting on objective criteria. Due to domestic pressure, I think colonialism was a matter of political life and death for Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who dominated 19th Century German politics and had united the various German speaking kingdoms and duchies into a single empire.[96] Hamburg shipping companies (who held major influence in German elections) competed with British firms in West Africa for palm oil, and were lobbying strongly for government support.[97] Propaganda had fanned the excitement for colonialism amongst voters,[98] but it was the advancing British and French interests in West Africa that alarmed the Hanseatic traders.[99] Chancellor Bismarck saw imperialism as an unavoidable venture in maintaining the prestige of the new German Empire,[100] and was more concerned with minimising the still developing Reich’s overseas liabilities.[101] He preferred an informal empire approach akin to that of the British,[102] but London moved to exclude German trade from territory they neither occupied nor legally claimed,[103] citing their naval paramountcy over Africa. Sensing Britain was in decline on this aspect, Bismarck took great offence to this supposedly arrogant treatment,[104] and publicly denounced it as an affront to German national esteem.[105] He captured the sentiment of German voters perfectly, seizing the opportunity to manipulate domestic politics through a regulation of commerce in Africa.[106] His ultimate goal was to undermine British hegemony in Africa and herald the arrival of Germany as an imperial power.[107]

B Interests

Chancellor Bismarck’s primary interest was to display Germany’s might to his rivals and signal a change in the global power balance.[108] To supplement this, he would undermine the strength of Britain,[109] as a ‘few barren tracts of land’ in Africa would not be controversial internationally but would humiliate them.[110] Unlike the more democratically organised British and French governments, Bismarck was motivated by a particularly personal interest to ensure re-election, and this provided the final impetus for him to act on African matters.[111] Arthur Lall identifies personal factors as vital considerations in international diplomacy,[112] while Shell highlights that personal interests are often crucial to understanding a party’s persistence in negotiations.[113] In my view, this explains Bismarck’s assertive behaviour in the lead up to the conference, and why he made steps to reach out to both France and the Belgian King Leopold.

Bismarck saw Africa in European terms, and territorial disputes here were merely a proxy for such differences in Europe.[114] This allowed him to clearly identify his contemporaries’ interests, and he could therefore acknowledge them as part of the dispute. As a result, he could enact an interests-based approach, argue strongly on substantive issues and apply pressure for an effective solution.[115] By remaining persistent in his interest in displaying Germany’s power rather than any particular territorial position, Bismarck could manipulate his alternatives to pressure the British and thus remained incredibly flexible throughout the negotiation.[116]

C Alternatives

Germany’s major alternate ve to negotiation was of course war. Understanding the difficulty in fighting Britain without allies and unwilling to do so over land Germany had not yet acquired,[117] Bismarck cleverly realised the importance of considering the opposition’s BATNA.[118] He attempted to worsen it to severely hamper Britain’s negotiating power.[119] In order to create political clout, he offered to align with France on the Egyptian question in exchange for French support in potential German colonies.[120] Doing so would appease the French, who were still hurting after the 1871 loss of Alsace-Lorraine in Europe.[121] It also forced Britain into a choice between Germany and France across most of West Africa. [122] Simultaneously, Germany had weakened the British BATNA while strengthening their own in case of conflict. Rather than directly haggling with Britain over territory, Bismarck created an alternative scenario that required issue trading, reframing the discussions from a distributive to an integrative bargaining approach.[123] The distributive or ‘fixed-pie’ method of bargaining inhibits the creating of mutually beneficial options,[124] which can result in a better outcome.[125] Issue trading in an integrative approach can also generate a sense of mutual compensation,[126] reducing the level of relationship conflict.[127] Accordingly, I argue that Bismarck was astute enough to realise the importance of not entirely alienating the British while satisfying France, as a continuous working relationship between all three was required to ensure an effective negotiation and outcome in Africa.[128]

D Communication

To achieve his alliance with France, Bismarck skilfully managed his approach to communication. Contemporaries note that he was extremely conciliatory in his exchanges with the French, while retaining his abrasive edge against the British.[129] This allowed him to present the appropriate image to each party to ensure they understood his interests. Effective communication is key to improving influence during a negotiation,[130] and certainly maximised Bismarck’s power in this situation.[131]

E Objective Criteria and Normative Leverage

In my opinion, Bismarck’s unique application of normative leverage to destroy the British claim of naval paramountcy was a stunning display of effective principled negotiation. Fisher and Ury observe that any objective criteria used to assess negotiation outcomes must be based on fair standards.[132] Normative leverage is the use of such norms and standards to increase control over the negotiation.[133] When the British excluded Germany from trade in West Africa on the basis of paramountcy, Germany insisted on an objective basis of formal sovereignty.[134] This norm was historically recognised in international law, and the British could now no longer block any German claims to territory without proving their own possession.[135] Expensive occupation procedures ran directly against their interest in minimising cost, and thus Bismarck created instability across many British claims in Africa.[136] Despite little change in the actual territorial situation in Africa, Germany’s leverage deepened due to British perceptions that their informal empire was in grave danger.[137] This dynamic increase in leverage[138] was then exercised by Germany in the Egyptian debt negotiations, as they backed the French veto and forced Britain to negotiate in order to save their interests in Egypt.[139] Without the threat of losing Egypt, Robinson believes that it is unlikely that the British would have attended the Berlin Conference.[140] Confident that he was riding the advancing tide of history, Bismarck could afford to be rigid against the British Foreign Office.[141] With Britain retreating on all fronts, Bismarck now began seeking options beside widespread German occupation, as he too wished to minimise the costs of his colonial policy.[142] Despite possessing no current territory in Africa,[143] and military power still only approaching that of Britain,[144] Germany now had issue power and could thus dictate the terms of negotiation. [145] Most impressively, Germany achieved this without any material change in their African territorial holdings.

F Options

Coalitions are inherently unstable where parties have differing interests during the negotiation.[146] While Bismarck needed France to weaken British hegemony, he was averse to handing them control of the Congo, as French protectionist policies would greatly anger his supporters in the Hamburg shipping companies.[147] The Reichstag was also unwilling to shoulder the cost of exploring and administering such a vast territory,[148] preferring instead to have charter companies control smaller but explored regions in Togo, Cameroon and South-West Africa.[149] A neutral solution emerged through the Belgian King Leopold’s International Association of the Congo (AIC).[150] As the AIC currently lacked sovereignty, Bismarck extracted free trade rights for the Germans in the Congo in exchange for recognising Leopold’s claims there.[151] The only feasible method of solidifying his goals was a multilateral negotiation to incorporate all of the parties Germany needed to negotiate with. Bismarck therefore convened a Conference of all of the European nations.[152] By hosting the conference in Berlin, Bismarck was able to control the physical environment and manipulate it to his advantage.[153] He determined the invitees, and made it a point to involve smaller nations like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands in the proceedings to act as a diplomatic counterweight against both Britain and France, even though they had little ability to acquire colonies of their own.[154] The presence of neutral third parties also created an external standard of legitimacy,[155] as the discussions now necessarily had to appear to be fair and in good faith. Hosting a major international conference also symbolised the arrival of Germany as a world power,[156] partially satisfying Chancellor Bismarck’s interests through the process of negotiation itself.


A Overview

Leopold achieved the most successful outcome relative to his power by leveraging his excellent network of relationships into information about others’ interests, and then using this to generate options that were guaranteed to provide mutual benefit. Leopold’s efforts in the Congo were solely personal, and he operated with little support from the Belgian government and indifferent public opinion.[157] Envious of his relatives Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm, the British and German monarchs who held large territorial empires, Leopold was motivated to acquire an empire of his own.[158]The most powerful interests are basic human needs,[159] and Leopold desperately wanted to be respected as an equal to his fellow monarchs.[160] Further, he was convinced that a colony would create an overseas market and resources for Belgians to exploit.[161] After failing to purchase a colony in South America and Asia, Leopold turned to Africa, where much of the interior remained unclaimed and unexplored.[162] An admirer of the Royal Geographic Society, Leopold turned to its champion, the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, to map out the Congo and acquire treaties of control on his behalf.[163] He channelled his exploits through his philanthropic society, the AIC,[164] which promoted geographical exploration, abolishing slavery and commercial development.[165] The partially scientific nature of his organisation added supposed credibility and sincerity to Leopold’s claims of philanthropy.[166] In reality however, Leopold’s motives were overwhelmingly economic given his massive financial investment, and he only negotiated with other nations in return for tangible rewards.[167] The Belgian government allowed him to act as a private entrepreneur, and he doggedly obeyed all of his constitutional obligations as the Belgian monarch while pursuing his African agenda.[168] Threatening his position in the Congo, the French explorer Brazza was also signing a number of treaties with local chiefs, and had the sovereignty of the French government to support him.[169]

B Interests

Leopold’s interests were simple. He desired respect from his royal peers, and saw an empire, particularly a commercially successful one, as the means to achieve this goal. By being specific with his interests, Leopold could make them come alive and act with an eye to the future.[170] In achieving his interests, Leopold utilised a common problem solving approach by ignoring the common assumption and implied rule[171] that only a state could acquire territory and sovereignty in Africa. Effectively, Leopold changed the parameters of the game by thinking outside the box, enhancing his negotiation strategy.

C Relationships and Information

The relationship element is particularly crucial for Leopold, as he built multiple working relationships that made his negotiations incredibly effective.[172] Recognising his weakness in knowing very little about Africa, Leopold enlisted Stanley, who already possessed significant experience in exploring the Congo basin. [173] Rather than focus on the available information about the Congo, which may have resulted in a biased view of its resources,[174] Leopold understood the power of possessing the right information.[175] He knew that his negotiating tactics were dependent on truly reliable information,[176] which meant boots on the ground, as he sent Stanley back into the Congo to properly map the region.[177] Realising that his influence on other parties required empathising with their point of view,[178] Leopold instructed Stanley to act as peacefully as possible.[179] This allowed him to achieve farcical results in the Congo, as he obtained treaties for navigational, territorial and fishing rights from local chiefs in exchange for large gifts of common items such as cloth.[180] Enchanted by the generosity of Leopold’s representatives, who were acting totally inconsistently with locals’ previous experiences with Europeans, the African chiefs barely understood the massive rights they were signing over.[181] Leopold was clearly conscious of the benefits of acting inconsistent with public perceptions, as his work in the Congo won applause from other European Powers who admired his nobility.[182]

Leopold was also a skilled user of Fisher and Ury’s first principled negotiations tactic of separating people from them the problem.[183]Supplementing his public appeal was an extensive confidential relationship network, which allowed Leopold to build trust[184] amongst powerful actors in other countries. His closest contacts were the US Ambassador to Brussels, the President of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and the head of the British India Steamship Company.[185] It is clear that Leopold selected these men as the most appropriate third parties to influence foreign powers’ negotiation policies with him.[186] The Ambassador had direct contact with the US President, who he enamoured by claiming that his association wished to establish a Congo Free State with a constitution modelled on that of the USA.[187] The Manchester Chamber of Commerce represented some of the largest British exporters to West Africa, while the British India Steamship Company operated via the Suez Canal and the Cape, providing them with major interests in any additional ports or trade routes in Africa.[188] Leopold’s relationship with these British ghost negotiators, who had clout with the Foreign Office, and therefore the British Parliament,[189] allowed him to understand the influences and vested interests driving Britain.[190]

D Alternatives

Acting in his personal capacity, Leopold had no ability to wage war. His only real alternative was to walk away from the Congo, but this would result in an unacceptable diminution of his international status, particularly given the amount of money he had already invested,[191] and would not serve any of his interests.

E Legitimate Options for Sovereignty

Sovereignty over the Congo was the only objective criteria Leopold could rely upon to ensure the validity of his territorial claims.[192] Although the AIC had developed a public dimension by obtaining treaties from local African chiefs and kingdoms, it remained an essentially private organisation.[193] By realising that he needed to stake his claim using objective criteria, Leopold was able to achieve his goals on principles rather than locking himself into a position.[194] He relied on his natural problem solver approach, which is a particularly valuable skillset in complex international negotiations.[195] With absolute decision-making authority, Leopold was able to make any concessions or commitments necessary to achieve his goal.[196] This proved extremely beneficial, and reinforces the importance of understanding the level of authority a negotiator has prior to entering negotiations.

Due to his position as the King of a neutral and respected state, Leopold could approach other parties directly,[197] and according to close sources, he was extremely charming in person.[198] With the United States, he leveraged his good working relationship with the US Ambassador to Belgium by guaranteeing American free trade in the Congo basin.[199] In exchange, the United States agreed to recognise his Association’s sovereignty over the Congo, providing him with the legitimacy required to stake his claim and setting a precedent for the European powers. [200] By understanding the importance of free trade for the Americans, Leopold was able to determine a rational tradeoff that served his interests.[201] Further, by building trust and sharing information with the Americans, Leopold was able to communicate effectively and generate a mutually beneficial outcome.[202] With a replicable strategy for mutual gain, Leopold broadened the options on the table for all of the European powers as well.[203]

With the French, his main rivals in the Congo, Leopold understood that they were focused on slightly different issues, and displayed an excellent integrative negotiation strategy in response.[204] Through open communication with France, Leopold maximised his negotiating power[205] when he realised that they feared he may sell his territories to Britain.[206] Recognising his great leverage based on this fear,[207] Leopold consolidated his power and rapport with the French by deciding not to use it.[208] Instead, he maximised his negotiating power by inventing the elegant option[209] of granting a Right of First Refusal to France if he ever decided to sell his territory, elevating their claim above that of even the Belgian government, who had been considered the natural successors to Leopold’s claims.[210] In exchange, Leopold garnered French recognition of his sovereignty,[211] and aligned their interests to his, as any further territorial claims he made benefited France.[212] By sharing his interests with a major colonial power, Leopold created an opportunity to gain support for more territory.[213] Expecting his imminent bankruptcy due to constant spending, the French were happy with this outcome.[214]

The other powers quickly mobilised in response to Leopold’s moves, as neither the Germans nor the British wanted the protectionist French to control the entire Congo basin.[215] Leopold’s willingness to give every assurance of free trade to Germany satisfied Bismarck,[216] who in turn supported Leopold’s sovereignty and gave him financial independence from France.[217] The Germans were also content to hand more territory to Leopold in the hope that any extra resources he discovered would prevent him from selling out to the French.[218] With an integrative negotiation plan, Leopold was able to generate recognition for his sovereignty by addressing the different perspectives to his position in the Congo.[219]

The British Foreign Office was furious at this ‘mischievous and shabby trick’ played by Leopold, but his strong relationships with many of their powerful supporters tempered their response.[220] Leopold was aware that his free trade mantra would be encouraging to the British, who were not keen for the French alternative of more protectionism.[221] With German and French sponsorship of his claim, and British ambivalence towards it, Leopold arguably had the strongest negotiating power heading into the Berlin Conference. No other power had acted from such a singularly rational and far sighted economic motive,[222] an extremely powerful tactic given that relatively irrational prestige considerations dominated the other participants’ strategy.[223]


Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference to resolve the multiple territorial disputes across Africa, but in particular the complex situation developing at the Congo, with Leopold, France and Britain all attempting to consolidate their claims in the region.[224] Both Bismarck and Leopold entered the conference with a positive frame of maximising their rewards, which allowed them to achieve a better result than the British, who were mainly trying to minimise their losses.[225] Final agreements in negotiations are more strongly influenced by initial offers than subsequent concessions due to inherent anchoring biases,[226] and this held true at the Berlin Conference. Leopold was greatly assisted by a carefully crafted commitment regarding his free trade policy in the Congo.[227] He made Bismarck’s decision on the Congo extremely easy, optimising his own outcome.[228] Bismarck made British support for a neutral Leopoldian Congo his price for Germany ceasing their debt veto in Egypt.[229] Bismarck highlighted their common interest of blocking the French out of most of the Congo, making his proposal appear relatively fair to the British.[230] It was a soft closing tactic by Bismarck, as he was essentially splitting the difference (the free trade rights to the Congo) with the British.[231] With Bismarck controlling Britain’s desired outcome in Egypt, he held significant positive leverage,[232] and the British were forced to capitulate and recognise Leopold’s sovereignty in the Congo.[233] With the three Great Powers (and the United States) all agreeing to King Leopold’s Association becoming the de facto government of the Congo Free State,[234] the General Act of the Berlin Conference was mainly dedicated to confirming his sovereignty and his guaranteed freedom of trade in the Congo.[235] With a final territory 78 times the size of his own country,[236] Leopold could take his position alongside his cousins as a Great Imperial Power, an incredibly good outcome given he was essentially a single man negotiating with massive foreign governments.[237] His interests had certainly been achieved. Beyond the Congo, the horse-trading continued.

By distracting the British with the Egyptian question, Germany was able to acquire a share in their Zanzibari territory[238] in addition to gaining colonies in Togo, Cameroon and South West Africa.[239] Thus, the Germans had effectively acquired a valuable trading port and client-state from Britain, a comprehensive victory for their international prestige. Having ensured that the vast majority of the Congo basin had stayed out of French hands, both Germany and Britain allowed the French to ratify Brazza’s treaties, extending their empire in Western Africa to the northern banks of the Congo River.[240] In compensation, the French recognised British control over the Niger delta (modern day Nigeria), the centre of their palm oil trade and the hub of British influence in West Africa.[241] Despite this, the British informal empire across much of the rest of Africa had been destroyed, and Bismarck’s objective criterion of effective occupation was enshrined in the General Act, ensuring legitimacy for the result.[242] As a consequence, the Great Powers (now including Leopold) commenced the Scramble for Africa in 1885, setting up direct administration and dividing the African peoples into formal colonies across the continent.[243]


The negotiation strategies of Britain, France, Germany and Leopold have been analysed using Fisher and Ury’s elements of principled negotiation.[244] All parties recognised the weakness of their alternatives, and that nobody was able to achieve any of their interests by walking away, given that the previous status quo was certain to change. By focusing on others interests and insisting on legitimate criteria, both Bismarck and Leopold were able to achieve better outcomes. They were also able to maintain their relationships with the other participants, highlighting the effectiveness of their strategies. Leopold in particular displayed a penchant for separating people from the problem with his relationship management. As a result of these factors, Germany and Leopold were able to generate a variety of options with various parties, giving them multiple avenues to satisfy their interests. It is thus not surprising that they are considered to have been the winners of the Berlin Conference,[245] with Leopold’s outcome alarming to contemporary commentators, having acquired a massive territory with little more than a shadow organisation.[246] By contrast, the British locked themselves into a position regarding an informal empire, were squeezed on Egypt and ultimately lost their influence across much of Africa. The French, driven toward a large colonial empire by prestige, were able to focus on their interests and flexible position. Despite this, their failure to consider others interests cost them the chance to maximise their territorial acquisitions. The effects of colonialism across Africa were tragic, with the atrocities committed in Leopold’s Congo Free State among the most horrific in history.[247] Despite this, the modern school of Principled Negotiation provides fabulous lessons on strategies in 19th Century international diplomacy and a fascinating explanation of the results of the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference.

[1] Jim Jones, ‘The Congress of Berlin (1884-1885)’ on West Chester University (2015) <>

[2] G.N. Sanderson, ‘British Informal Empire, Imperial Ambitions, Defensive Strategies and the Anglo-Portuguese Congo Treaty of February 1884’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988), 214.

[3] G.N. Sanderson, ‘The European Partition of Africa: Origins & Dynamics’ in Roland Oliver & G.N. Sanderson (eds), The Cambridge History of Africa Volume 6: From 1870 to 1905 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) 116.

[4] Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, (Random House Business Books, London 1991).

[5] Adekunle Ajala, ‘The Nature of African Boundaries’ (1983) 18(2) Africa Spectrum 177, 182.

[6] Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912 (Random House, New York 1991), 247.

[7] Melvyn Bragg, ‘In Our Time: The Berlin Conference’ on BBC (31 October 2013) <>

[8] Sanderson, above n 3, 110.

[9] H.L. Wesseling, ‘The Berlin Conference and the Expansion of Europe: A Conclusion’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988) 527.

[10] Arthur Lall, Modern International Negotiation: Principles and Practice (Columbia University Press, New York 1966) 83.

[11] Max H. Bazerman and Margaret A. Neale, Negotiating Rationally, (The Free Press, New York 1992)

[12] Wesseling, above n 9, 531.

[13] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, xiv.

[14] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 4.

[15] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 11.

[16] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 26.

[17] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 104.

[18] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 195.

[19] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 68.

[20] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 10.

[21] G. Richard Shell, Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People (The Penguin Group, New York 1999), 11.

[22] Jeswald W. Salacuse, The Global Negotiator: Making Managing and Mending Deals Around the World in the Twenty-First Century, (Palgrave Macmillian, 2003).

[23] Lall, above n 10.

[24] Lall, above n 10, 56.

[25] Sanderson, above n 3, 97.

[26] A.E. Atmore, ‘Africa on the Eve of Partition’ in Roland Oliver & G.N. Sanderson (eds), The Cambridge History of Africa Volume 6: From 1870 to 1905 (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 19.

[27] Atmore, above n 26, 47.

[28] Atmore, above n 26, 71.

[29] Atmore, above n 26, 71.

[30] Sanderson, above n 3, 110.

[31] Sanderson, above n 3, 110.

[32] Pakenham, above n 6, 211.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Pakenham, above n 6, 211.

[35] Sanderson, above n 3, 120.

[36] Sanderson, above n 3, 138.

[37] Sanderson, above n 3, 108.

[38] Lall, above n 10, 83.

[39] Sanderson, above n 2, 202.

[40] Sanderson, above n 3, 104.

[41] Bragg, above n 7.

[42] John Lonsdale, ‘The European Scramble and Conquest in African History’ in Roland Oliver & G.N. Sanderson (eds), The Cambridge History of Africa Volume 6: From 1870 to 1905 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) 693-695.

[43] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 42-43.

[44] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 16.

[45] Lall, above n 10, 152.

[46] Lall, above n 10, 173.

[47] Salacuse, above n 22, 161.

[48] Paul J Zwier, Principled negotiation and mediation in the international arena: talking with evil (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 56.

[49] Sanderson, above n 2, 211-212.

[50] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 38.

[51] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 104.

[52] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 101.

[53] Zwier, above n 48, 51.

[54] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 19.

[55] Shell, above n 21, 90.

[56] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 101.

[57] Sanderson, above n 2, 206.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 2.

[60] Sanderson, above n 2, 210.

[61] Sanderson, above n 2, 211-212.

[62] Lall, above n 10, 287.

[63] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 5.

[64] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 61.

[65] Sanderson, above n 2, 213.

[66] Pakenham, above n 6, 211.

[67] Wesseling, above n 9, 528.

[68] Lall, above n 10, 264.

[69] Atmore, above n 26, 11.

[70] Sanderson, above n 3, 98.

[71] Atmore, above n 26, 30.

[72] Sanderson, above n 3, 109.

[73] Sanderson, above n 3, 98.

[74] A.S. Kanya-Forstner, ‘French African Priorities and the Berlin West Africa Conference’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988) 171.

[75] Sanderson, above n 3, 101.

[76] Sanderson, above n 3, 112.

[77] Kanya-Forstner, above n 74, 174.

[78] Wesseling, above n 9, 529.

[79] Sanderson, above n 3, 123.

[80] Sanderson, above n 3, 126.

[81] Lall, above n 10, 217.

[82] Shell, above n 21, 95.

[83] Shell, above n 21, 181.

[84] Zwier, above n 48, 30.

[85] Lall, above n 10, 70.

[86] Zwier, above n 48, 31.

[87] Salacuse, above n 22, 271.

[88] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 76.

[89] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 164.

[90] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 90.

[91] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 192-193.

[92] Shell, above n 21, 197.

[93] Shell, above n 21, 195.

[94] Zwier, above n 48, 61.

[95] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 86.

[96] Atmore, above n 26 32.

[97] Bragg, above n 7.

[98] Klaus J. Bade, ‘Imperial Germany and West Africa: Colonial Movement, Business Interests and Bismarck’s Colonial Policies’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988) 121

[99] Bade, above n 98, 131.

[100] Sanderson, above n 3, 138.

[101] Bade, above n 98, 137.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Sanderson, above n 3, 109.

[104] Sanderson, above n 3, 138.

[105] Ronald Robinson, ‘The Conference in Berlin and the Future in Africa 1884-1885’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988), 108.

[106] Robinson, above n 105, 32.

[107] Sanderson, above n 3, 109.

[108] Robinson, above n 105, 8.

[109] Andrew Porter, ‘The Berlin West Africa conference of 1884-85 revisited: A Report’ (1985) 14(1) The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 83, 86

[110] Pakenham, above n 6,204.

[111] Bragg, above n 7.

[112] Lall, above n 10, 144-145.

[113] Shell, above n 21, 81-82.

[114] Bade, above n 98, 138.

[115] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 52.

[116] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 182.

[117] Robinson, above n 105, 18.

[118] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 110.

[119] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 105.

[120] Sanderson, above n 3, 102.

[121] Bragg, above n 7.

[122] Sanderson, above n 3, 113.

[123] Shell, above n 21, 169.

[124] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 59.

[125] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 62.

[126] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 98.

[127] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 16.

[128] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 19.

[129] Daniel De Leon, ‘The Conference at Berlin on The West-African Question’ (1886) 1(1) Political Science Quarterly 1. 14<>

[130] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 168.

[131] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 190-191.

[132] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 88.

[133] Shell, above n 21, 43.

[134] Sanderson, above n 3, 132.

[135] Pakenham, above n 6, 208.

[136] Sanderson, above n 3, 135.

[137] Shell, above n 21, 113.

[138] Shell, above n 21, 110.

[139] Pakenham, above n 6, 212.

[140] Robinson, above n 105, 14.

[141] Lall, above n 10, 246.

[142] De Leon above n 129, 15.

[143] Bade, above n 98, 129.

[144] Bragg, above n 7.

[145] Salacuse, above n 22, 209.

[146] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 138-139.

[147] Robinson, above n 105, 12.

[148] Bade, above n 98, 146.

[149] Robinson, above n 105, 13.

[150] Sanderson, above n 3, 136.

[151] Pakenham, above n 6, 249.

[152] Bragg, above n 7.

[153] Salacuse, above n 22, 78.

[154] Bragg, above n 7.

[155] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 192-193.

[156] Wesseling, above n 9, 529.

[157] Jean Stengers, ‘Leopold II and the Association Internationale du Congo’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988) 229.

[158] Bragg, above n 7.

[159] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 49.

[160] Bragg, above n 7.

[161] Sanderson, above n 3, 126.

[162] Sanderson, above n 3, 127.

[163] Bragg, above n 7.

[164] Pakenham, above n 6, 244.

[165] Luigi Nuzzo, ‘Colonial Law’ on EGO European History Online (16 April 2012), 13 <>

[166] Stengers, above n 157, 237.

[167] Sanderson, above n 3, 137.

[168] Stengers, above n 157, 232.

[169] Sanderson, above n 3, 127.

[170] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 52-53.

[171] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 17.

[172] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 19.

[173] Stengers, above n 157, 233.

[174] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 46.

[175] Shell, above n 21, 17.

[176] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 71.

[177] Stengers, above n 157, 233.

[178] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 24.

[179] Stengers, above n 157, 233.

[180] Bragg, above n 7.

[181] Bragg, above n 7.

[182] Stengers, above n 157, 237.

[183] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 11.

[184] Shell, above n 21, 70.

[185] Pakenham, above n 6, 243.

[186] Salacuse, above n 22, 212.

[187] Pakenham, above n 6, 244.

[188] Pakenham, above n 6, 247.

[189] Salacuse, above n 22, 161.

[190] Shell, above n 21, 81-82.

[191] Lall, above n 10, 297.

[192] Nuzzo, above n 165, 14.

[193] Ibid.

[194] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 86.

[195] Shell, above n 21, 11.

[196] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 139.

[197] Stengers, above n 157, 231.

[198] Ibid.

[199] Stengers, above n 157, 246.

[200] Stengers, above n 157, 240.

[201] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 173.

[202] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 90.

[203] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 62.

[204] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 16.

[205] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 191-192.

[206] Pakenham, above n 6, 246.

[207] Shell, above n 21, 92.

[208] Shell, above n 21, 154.

[209] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 192-193.

[210] Stengers, above n 157, 242.

[211] Ibid.

[212] Stengers, above n 157, 242.

[213] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 75.

[214] Robinson, above n 105, 12.

[215] Pakenham, above n 6, 246.

[216] Sanderson, above n 3, 136.

[217] Robinson, above n 105, 12.

[218] Stengers, above n 157, 243.

[219] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 16.

[220] Pakenham, above n 6, 246.

[221] Sanderson, above n 3, 128.

[222] Sanderson, above n 3, 138.

[223] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 168.

[224] John D. Hargreaves, ‘The Berlin Conference, West African Boundaries and the Eventual Partition’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988) 316.

[225] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 40.

[226] Bazerman and Neale, above n 11, 28-29.

[227] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 195.

[228] Fisher and Ury, above n 4, 78.

[229] Pakenham, above n 6, 249.

[230] Salacuse, above n 22, 271.

[231] Shell, above n 21, 190.

[232] Shell, above n 21, 102.

[233] Pakenham, above n 6, 249.

[234] Jones, above n 1.

[235] Jim Jones, ‘General Act of the 1885 Conference of Berlin’ on West Chester University (2015) <>

[236] Bragg, above n 7.

[237] Pakenham, above n 6, 254.

[238] Sanderson, above n 3, 134.

[239] Robinson, above n 105, 13.

[240] Jones, above n 1.

[241] Ibid.

[242] Sanderson, above n 3, 133.

[243] Imanuel Geiss, ‘Free Trade, Internationalization of the Congo Basin and the Principle of Effective Occupation’ in Stig Forster, Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Ronald Robinson (eds), Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition, (Oxford University Press, New York 1988) 230.

[244] Fisher and Ury, above n 4.

[245] Jones, above n 1.

[246] De Leon above n 129, 6.

[247] Adam Matthew, Red Rubber: Atrocities in the Congo Free State in Confidential Print: Africa, (16 December 2010) <>

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