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Lessons in talking to tyrants

Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

August 9, 2018   5 mins

The effectiveness of President Trump’s readiness to talk to autocrats – tyrants, even – was implicitly criticised in the six-month report to the Security Council by independent experts monitoring the implementation of UN sanctions:

“[North Korea] has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs and continued to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as through transfers of coal at sea during 2018.”

An editorial in The Times went further, the President’s “unswerving belief in his own powers of negotiation…has made little tangible difference in taming the bellicose instincts of autocratic regimes,” and the summit with Putin “shows clearly the limits of his approach.”

A recent study from the IISS suggests Trump’s instincts when it comes to non-proliferation may not be wrong

But might it be too early to tell? As I wrote for UnHerd earlier this year, President Reagan’s Rekjavik summit with President Gorbachev in 1986 initially looked like a failure, but six months later, the finishing touches were being put to an agreement that reduced allowable intermediate-range nuclear missiles to zero. Gorbachev has said it was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

At the time of Reykjavik, many US officials and politicians were terrified that Reagan was going to “give away the store.” He did no such thing. Trump’s instincts are to follow the Reagan line.

He has other examples to follow too. “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war”, Churchill is supposed to have said, which is sometimes taken as a licence for the stately diplomatic process, one that can easily become an end in itself, especially with the fig leaf of UN sanctions. But during all the talking of the past two decades, North Korea has come closer to acquiring a nuclear capability, and so has Iran. What Churchill actually said was, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” This is significantly different: it implies talking for a fixed length of time at a high level. What happens after that is the issue.

Many a mountebank politician has been flattered into virtue, the prize being not just survival but reputation

There is, of course, a fundamental question of character to address: Trump and Putin are not Reagan and Gorbachev. That said, many a mountebank politician has been flattered into virtue, the prize being not just survival but reputation. Besides, men make it as mountebanks by having shrewd instincts, and a study just published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London in collaboration with the Centre Russe d’Etudes Politiques in Geneva suggests that Trump’s instincts when it comes to non-proliferation may not be wrong.

It does, however, suggest that his approach needs to pay heed to half a century’s hard-won experience.

The IISS/CREP study concludes that “there is a rich, if often underappreciated, Cold War history of US–Soviet cooperation on nuclear-weapons threat reduction and a strong emphasis on ensuring strategic stability”. That cooperation rested on the (now, at least) obvious “shared existential interests and the recognition that the spread of nuclear weapons would undermine regional and global security, and increase the risk of nuclear-weapons use”.

The paper’s case studies into how and why collaboration was possible in spite of the acrimonious rhetoric (and more) of the Cold War are instructive, indicating that routine dialogue, personal relationships and trust established through these joint efforts in a relatively narrow domain “helped prevent a nuclear holocaust and contributed to a better understanding more generally of each side’s perspectives on foreign-policy issues”.

Even more important for Trump’s engagement policy (or, more correctly, the policy of Trump-Pompeo engagement) the historical research suggests areas where non-proliferation cooperation between Moscow and Washington might be possible today, despite rising tensions and uncertainty. It lists seven lessons, which in turn might translate into rules of procedure.

Some of the lessons are no less important for seeming obvious in hindsight. Lesson 1, is a prime example: “Non-proliferation cooperation was most likely to occur when Soviet and US leaders attached high importance to non-proliferation objectives, and perceived convergent national interests in this domain to be best served by collaborative action.”

The paper’s case studies into how and why collaboration was possible in spite of the acrimonious rhetoric of the Cold War are instructive

And though it might seem to follow logically, that, as per Lesson 2, “When Soviet and US policymakers perceived that cooperation was in their mutual interest, both sides exhibited flexibility and a willingness to compromise to advance their shared objectives”, this might not have been obvious to either party at the height of the Cold War.

Lesson 3 is the one that Trump so evidently believes in: “Personal relationships between Soviet and US policymakers and negotiators contributed to the process of overcoming differences and reaching common positions on non-proliferation issues.” This finding does have the rider, though, that many of the same Soviet and US diplomats and officials participated in different non-proliferation negotiations over the years, establishing close working relations. So far, turbulence and turnover in the Trump administration does not match up well with this.

This is underscored by Lesson 5: “Policymakers on both the Soviet and US sides appreciated the importance of one another’s buy-in in achieving important non-proliferation objectives [both sides recognising] that as superpowers and alliance leaders, obtaining one another’s support for key non-proliferation objectives would greatly increase the prospects for their realisation.” And for this reason, officials frequently undertook bilateral consultations on a particular issue in advance of their consideration at multilateral meetings.

So far with Trump’s initiatives, this appears to have been an element that has been missing – or, at least, hurried.

But Lesson 7 gives grounds for hope: “Non-proliferation cooperation was usually easier on purely technical issues. Cooperation between Soviet and US scientists… often preceded successful diplomatic cooperation for non-proliferation.” The study cites the case of leading US scientists in the 1970s actually being invited to travel to closed Soviet nuclear facilities.

Lesson 6 is the statesman’s carrot: “Soviet and US policymakers recognised that their countries’ international images typically were enhanced when they were seen to cooperate. In these instances, non-proliferation cooperation was viewed as a goal worthy of significant effort and investment. Although US–Soviet cooperation on non-proliferation prospered when it served both countries’ national interests, policymakers in both countries on occasion also pursued it as an objective in and of itself.”

However, Lesson 4 is worrying at present: “Cooperation was fostered by the presence in both countries of strong institutional advocates for non-proliferation. In both the Soviet Union and the US, there were institutions and individuals who sought to ensure that cooperation on nuclear issues continued even under difficult political circumstances.” Yes, there are strong advocates in the US today, but their advocacy appears to be outdone by their belligerency. That the belligerency is understandable – has cause, indeed – isn’t the point.

The study makes one particular recommendation: that Russia and the US undertake parallel nuclear-proliferation threat assessments, informed by historical knowledge that cooperation is easier when threat perceptions and non-proliferation interests correspond, for “there is prima facie evidence that there is still a convergence of such perceptions and interests today in a number of areas”.

Ideally, it would be a joint threat-assessment undertaken by both governments, not least to identify more precisely those areas in which perspectives about threats and interests converge and diverge. However, with the diplomatic stasis at present over Ukraine (to name but one thing), and a new round of sanctions about to kick in, it might be better for institutions such as the Russian and US academies of sciences (which have previously conducted collaborative scientific research on non-proliferation issues) to conduct a surrogate assessment.

President Trump’s challenge is to harness best practice such as that identified by the IISS/CREP with his own instinct for “jaw-to-jaw” rather than just the “jaw, jaw” of previous administrations. The challenge for Trump’s political opponents, is to allow him time and space to do that. As the IISS/CREP study concludes, cooperation – not just “jaw”, but real cooperation – begets cooperation.

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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