Where do we go from here?
President Trump and Kim Jong-un have met and signed a document that seemingly charters a future dialog between the U.S. and the DPRK — although China will be a primary player as well — this concerning the “denuclearizing” of North Korea.
What follows will be every bit as important perhaps even more important — than the short document Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim signed in Singapore.
The truth of the matter is that we haven’t done a good job with arms control-related negotiations or such agreements since we started doing them with the Soviets in the ‘70s.
Here are some qualifiers:
• No president, secretary of State or ambassador to a specific arms control-related negotiation, is ever going to say that the agreement concluded on their watch was a bad one, even if it was. Criticism of these agreements is most always in a political context — a recent example is the Iran Nuclear Agreement negotiated during the Obama administration: The Democrats see this as “good” and the Republicans see it as “bad.”
• A particular arms control-related agreement may start out as “good” and then turn “bad” based on the cheating of the other party to the deal. Because of the structure of our government and society, we are basically incapable of cheating on these agreements; this while the other parties to the agreement typically “build in” various cheating scenarios via one technique or another.
• Whether a particular agreement is “good” or “bad” also depends on institutional dynamics that are most often ignored by the “echo chamber” that reports our news. Specifically, arms control is viewed by some as “good” even if it only results in disarming us — another way this is expressed is that “any arms control is good.” Many advocates of this point of view come from the various anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s.
During the Reagan era, I was stunned to see who was actually “doing” arms control policy formulation at the working group level. They were mostly kids in their 20s with little or no experience in national security matters.
As for arms control negotiations themselves, there are a whole host of dynamics that reduce our effectiveness.
First, we typically have too many people “on the ground” during a particular negotiation. At a U.N. Conference on Disarmament held in Geneva in 1984, the U.S. delegation consisted of 32 people and nine spouses. By contrast, the USSR sent a svelte delegation of 19, many of them KGB and GRU people. But 32 was a small delegation for us: During my years on the Nuclear and Space Talks with the Soviets our delegation was comprised of hundreds of substantive and support personnel.
Why do we need so many? We don’t, and the main reason is simply one U.S. government agency “keeping an eye” on another — this because there are so many interagency politics involved in crafting the “instructions” for the delegation. Even with these NSC-approved instructions, however, individual agencies feel free to pursue their own policy agendas because others are doing the same.
This internal divisiveness is well known in international circles and exploited by the better organized delegations, especially from countries like Russia and China. They seek out the divisions on the U.S. side so they can exploit them in any way they can.
Second, the way we assemble the actual text of a document offers many ways to exploit our negotiating weaknesses. The example I saw time after time was with the idea of “equally authentic texts” of the agreements we signed. This can result in two or more essentially different agreements — based on the actual text and/or language nuances, especially U.S-Russian, U.S.-Chinese and U.S.-Korean.
Typically, our translators and interpreters are professional at just that, while those on the other side can come from the various intelligence agencies, with the mission to create the “best” document for their side and the “worst” for our side. And sometimes, the translators actually sit down together to produce the various texts: Suffice it to say, we typically come out on the short end of the stick as far as the technical language and definitions go, especially in the many comprehensive annexes and “agreed statements” that become part of the “deal”.
So, President Trump: Be extra careful with the technical details of any implementing deal with Mr. Kim and China - this because our track record is not good “doing” arms control, and we typically cannot put a delegation on the ground that can function as a team.
•Dealing with Korea and China with detailed and specific national security matters is more akin to diamond cutting than anything else — and for a number of reasons they are better at it than we are.
• The trick is to keep it very simple — we do not do well with the complexities of arms control.
• Daniel Gallington served through 11 rounds of bilateral negotiations in Geneva as a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Nuclear and Space Talks with the former Soviet Union. He also negotiated with European and Asian countries in the context of military related relationships with the U.S.