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What Meghan and Harry’s Royal Split Can Teach Us About International Negotiation

In March 2021, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex shocked the world in their tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, finally giving royal watchers Meghan and Harry’s telling of their split from the British Royal Family. While the interview sparked the loudest reactions from British tabloids, anti-Monarchists, and critical race scholars, the acrimonious parting of ways also offers important lessons for conflict negotiation writ large.

What fatal flaws prohibited a harmonious separation? What famous negotiation strategies have British royals mimicked or disregarded? Are there any broader lessons to be learned from ‘Megxit,’ and how can crisis negotiators bring them into the realm of foreign policy?

  1. Reputations for resolve matter, and actors will fight to preserve their reputations.

Queen Elizabeth II’s nearly 70-year reign has been unified by a single theme: stoicism. That commitment to steadiness and firmness is a key reason the British royals have been able to survive into the 21st century. With so much riding on her not rocking the boat, the Queen was always going to be skeptical of the Sussexes’ unconventional request to be ‘half-in and half-out’ of the Royal Family.

This dilemma of advancing negotiations while defending reputations for resolve has plagued stoic actors throughout history. President Eisenhower, for example, famously maintained the U.S. commitment to a free West Berlin, refusing to compromise that point even as Khrushchev threatened to cut off access to the city in the 1958 Berlin Crisis. Anyone seeking negotiation with a resolute leader runs the very real risk that their opponent will dig in their heels, even when maintaining that position incurs heavy consequences.

2. Creating a ‘spin’ narrative can be beneficial for advancing negotiations, but if both sides aren’t on board with the public messaging, things can get messy.

Among the most remarked upon revelations of the royal interview was Meghan’s claim that Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton made her cry in the lead up to the Sussexes’ wedding, not the other way around, as was widely reported at the time. As Meghan put it, the palace was “willing to lie to protect other members of the family. They were not willing to tell the truth to protect myself and my husband.”

It is not unheard-of for negotiators to bend the truth in their public narrative of events. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, an agreement to secretly remove U.S. missiles from Turkey proved key to resolving diplomatic deadlock, averting crisis while allowing both sides to save face. What made that negotiation so successful, however, was the mutually agreed-upon understanding that appearances would not match reality. A unilateral spin narrative inevitably leaves one side feeling cheated and regresses negotiations.

3. The actor with more to lose is in a weaker bargaining position, but they’re also the one most likely to walk away from negotiations.

The royal rift is a prime example of asymmetric stakes: While Buckingham Palace sought to defend its reputation and the unity of the royal image, Meghan was fighting to protect her son, her mental wellbeing, and even her life. With much more to lose, Meghan and Harry were less likely to cede concessions, putting them in a position of reduced leverage in negotiations. However, they also had a greater incentive to walk away when the Palace refused to accommodate them.  

In the wake of the 2018 U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, the EU consistently tried to engage with Iran, attempting to revive the deal without the Trump Administration’s involvement. Tehran has refused talks with either the U.S. or the EU, even with President Joe Biden calling to reverse his predecessor’s hawkish policies on Iran. The sanctions crippling the Iranian economy raise the stakes so high that Iran cannot consider other negotiation paths so long as they remain in place.

4. The media has a very real impact on the course of negotiations – and rarely in a positive direction.  

Meghan and Harry’s desire to gain distance from the royal family came under media scrutiny almost from the beginning, with their January 2020 announcement hitting tabloids ahead of the family’s crisis meeting at Sandringham. Placing this magnifying glass over the royal schism distracted from the process of finding consensus, with both parties instead focused on crafting a positive public image. A more successful negotiation could have been reached out of the public eye.

One example of the value of curbed media attention was the 1978 Camp David Accords. By situating negotiations in the rural Maryland location and barring press passes, the Carter White House hoped to prevent participants from “try[ing] to advance their own personal interests through their journalists at the expense of the larger interest of peace.” The secrecy of the negotiations yielded an unprecedented Egyptian-Israeli agreement on a framework for Palestinian self-government.

5. All-or-nothing positions are not conducive to maintaining relationships between parties after negotiations.

According to their interview with Oprah, Meghan and Harry never intended to fully withdraw from royal life, but their proposal to “step back” from full-time duties was rejected by the Queen – effectively a choice between remaining all-in as senior royals or being completely cut off. This kind of ultimatum is damaging to long-term relationships and can cut off the potential for future negotiations. Obviously, the burning of bridges is detrimental to a family, but it also presents limitations for inter-state relations.   

NATO received criticism from the international community for its perceived all-or-nothing response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, in what many saw as a demand for Russia to renounce all its interests in Ukraine. The current downward spiral of U.S.-Russian relations can be tracked directly to that 2014 mishandling of negotiations, and has forestalled bilateral cooperation on other issues including nuclear armaments and the Syrian Civil War.

The rancor of Meghan and Harry’s departure from the British Royal Family was not inevitable. Furthermore, missteps made by both parties could have been avoided through a closer study of the historical record. While royal drama is usually excluded from the realm of high politics, the schism between the Sussexes and Buckingham Palace holds important lessons for negotiators of all stripes.  


Kathryn Urban

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