Mathematics, diplomacy and the art of negotiation

Michael Ambuhl is retired after nine years as ETH professor for negotiation management. A look back at the eventful career of the former State Secretary, who set out to turn practice into theory.

Michael Ambühl

Two institutions have shaped Michael Ambuhl’s life: ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). At ETH he spends a total of 14 years as a student and doctoral candidate in applied mathematics, and as a professor of negotiation. In the diplomatic service of Switzerland it is even 31 years, 9 of them as State Secretary, the highest position in the federal administration.

If you want to understand the Bernese-born urologist, who will become emeritus at the end of January, you can’t avoid this idiosyncratic combination of diplomacy and engineering. Because Ambuhl has never stopped seeing the world through the lens of the mathematically adept problem solver. Neither as a negotiator, who represented Switzerland’s interests in numerous delicate dossiers, nor as a professor, who in 2013 set out to turn his practical experience into theory.

The secret weapon

The list of negotiations in which Michael Ambuhl is involved reads like a chronology of Swiss foreign policy: Bilateral I, Bilateral II, facilitation of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, mediation between Armenia and Turkey, tax dispute between the U.S. and Switzerland. The list could be continued even further.

There is probably no one in Switzerland who has as much diplomatic negotiating experience as Ambuhl. "Miracle weapon", "trump card", "joker" or even "Usain Bolt of foreign policy" are some of the superlatives that the Swiss media have been tempted to use over the years.

"It’s all nonsense," Ambuhl comments on this puff piece. There are no patent remedies for successful negotiations, but there is a method that is based on experience and theory. In addition, a portion of luck is also necessary to successfully conclude complex negotiations.

Negotiation engineering

Ambuhl pulls out a sheet of paper and sketches a decision tree. In the top box he writes Brexit. "Only when we break down a problem that is difficult to grasp, such as the UK’s exit from the EU, into its most essential components, do solutions become visible". Here speaks the systematist from Ambuhl. For him, negotiations are a question of proper engineering.

"Structuring a negotiation problem well is already half the battle." In the case of Brexit, this method quickly leads to the question of how immigration can be regulated in the interests of both sides. In order to clearly formulate the often diffuse negotiating positions, Ambuhl likes to use mathematical formulas like this one: Excess immigration = mean value of all EU/EFTA countries + two times the standard deviation, which is multiplied by some country-specific coefficients.

In this way, an emotional issue is broken down to objectively ascertainable values. The emotionalism sometimes present in national and international politics is countered by the rationality of numbers.

Ambuhl is well aware of the limitations of this method. "If there are major political differences or conflicts of values between the actors, even the most elegant formulas are of no help." Moreover, the application of formal methods often fails because the negotiating parties cannot agree on what the most important issues are. But if actors are willing to take a formal approach, it can lead to surprising solutions. This is what happened, for example, with the land transport agreement between Switzerland and the EU, which Ambuhl describes as a major negotiating success.

Empathy and linguistic finesse

But negotiations cannot be reduced exclusively to cool arithmetic. It also takes a fair amount of empathy: "A good negotiator needs to understand his counterpart and be able to think himself into the other side’s shoes." Only those who have this nose can sense the pain threshold of the opponent.

In addition, it is important to rewrite differences in a conciliatory manner. "The art is to say no without slamming the door. This requires linguistic finesse and perhaps also a dose of humor," says the ETH professor. As in other professions, a certain composure and certainty sets in with experience. You get a better feeling for when a deal is possible.

But once this is achieved, there is seldom cause for feelings of triumph. Ambuhl calls this the negotiator’s paradox: "You are happy about the deal, but immediately wonder if you were too conciliatory". In the end, one never knows exactly what the negotiating partner would have been willing to give. Every negotiation takes place behind this veil of uncertainty.

From practice to theory

When Michael Ambuhl was appointed to ETH in 2013, he initially focused on teaching. His Introduction to Negotiation Engineering course is quickly gaining traction from other departments. In the spring semester of 2021, 650 students attend the lecture, one of the largest at ETH Zurich.

Ambuhl places further emphasis above all on the dialogue between science and politics. In 2015, he will organize for the first time a training course for new Swiss parliamentarians, which will include ETH researchers as well as professors from other Swiss universities.

Group picture against a mountain backdrop

Since 2016, he has also been the director of the newly founded Swiss School of Public Governance at ETH. This is aimed at managers in public administration and offers further training programs on good governance. Through his network, the former Secretary of State repeatedly manages to bring high-profile speakers to ETH, such as the two former Federal Councillors Micheline Calmy-Rey and Pascal Couchepin or the current Swiss Chancellor Walter Thurnherr.

Dialogue between science and politics

In 2021, Ambuhl is instrumental in founding the Laboratory for Science in Diplomacy in Geneva, which is jointly supported by ETH Zurich and the University of Geneva. "The laboratory," says the ETH professor, "is intended to provide scientific knowledge and methods for the diplomatic resolution of international conflicts."

Ambuhl is also particularly pleased with the role that his colleague Daniela Scherer and he played in resolving a conflict over the expansion of hydropower call_made in Switzerland. Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga enlisted the ETH professor as a mediator at. Ambuhl’s prudent attempts at mediation helped to make a compromise possible. He remained true to his engineering approach: "Only when we were able to agree on objective criteria for evaluating projects did movement come into the talks."

All life is problem solving

As a layman with an interest in philosophy, Ambuhl is guided by Karl Popper’s famous dictum that all life is problem solving. In the spirit of an engineer, it is not enough for him just to describe problems, he also wants to contribute to solving them.

Among his colleagues at the Chair of Negotiation, Ambuhl is regarded as committed and integrative. "He motivates us, involves us strongly and wants to know what we think about current issues," explains physicist Daniela Scherer, who did her doctorate under Ambuhl and now conducts research with him. She sees in him the classic republican public servant who is not concerned with politics but with the res publica, the public cause.

Influencing the European policy debate

Ambuhl is not afraid to take a stand on specific political issues. This was also the case, for example, in the discussions on relations between Switzerland and the EU. His main concern is to enrich the debate from a scientific point of view. "I want to provide politicians with scientifically sound bases for decision-making and not be a political figure," emphasizes the ETH professor, who is very reticent about media appearances.

Ambuhl sketches again, this time a table with 15 fields. At the bottom left, he notes "breakdown of negotiations without accompanying measures", at the top right "interim agreement with the EU". "In an expert report for the attention of the FDFA, we compared five alternative courses of action and analyzed the extent to which they corresponded to Switzerland’s interests. Breaking off negotiations without a plan B was not a good option for us."

Michael Ambühl

Today we know that the Federal Council did not follow this recommendation. But even without a breakdown in negotiations, it would have been difficult to achieve an acceptable result for both sides. According to Ambuhl, there was not enough negotiating leverage: "Since institutional issues were in the foreground, Switzerland should primarily have only given. If the EU had offered Switzerland new agreements in the areas of electricity, health and research, it would have been easier to balance the give and take."

Despite the general perplexity about the future of relations between Switzerland and the EU, Ambuhl remains optimistic: "I am confident that Bilateral III will happen." How this could come about, Daniela Scherer and he outlined in August last year in a three-step plan.

Three generations at ETH

Michael Ambuhl will remain with ETH even after his retirement. He will continue to serve as a guest lecturer in some continuing education programs and plans to support the development of the Laboratory for Science in Diplomacy in one way or another.

And even after he leaves, there will be an Ambuhl at ETH: "My son is doing research in traffic planning. After my father and me, he is the third generation to earn a doctorate at ETH," says the ETH professor. "We Ambuhls like ETH."

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