Tag: United Nations

Bluster/distract/cave won’t work

Donald Trump’s much-vaunted negotiating skills have produced virtually nothing in the past eight months of his singularly unproductive presidency. What do we know about his approach to negotiating? How is it working?

Trump’s first stage is bluster: locked and loaded, fire and fury. He threatens the worst possible outcome for his opponent, ignoring the implications for himself and his country. He has done this not only with North Korea, but also with the repeal of Obamacare (watch out! it’s collapsing!) and the budget ceiling (I’ll close down the government unless I get my wall!). Not to mention the nuclear deal with Iran (the worst deal ever!). This bluster attracts a lot of media attention, but it ignores what is crucial in negotiation: your own alternative to a negotiated agreement.

Then Trump quickly tacks in a different direction, before it is apparent that bluster isn’t working. Anything else will do, so long as it distracts from the main item he has put on the agenda. A hurricane will serve the purpose, as will a campaign trip to North Dakota or some other domestic political distraction like the competence of Speaker Ryan or Senate majority leader McConnell. The more bizarre the distraction, the better, since its purpose is to make the original issue evaporate, a bit like the magician’s use of distraction to make a rabbit disappear.

Then Trump caves on the original issue. He did this yesterday at the UN Security Council, accepting a resolution that falls far short of his announced goal of ending trade with North Korea, but only after taking advantage of the distraction caused by Hurricane Irma.

He is getting ready to do something similar with the Iran nuclear deal: he may claim that Iran is not complying (bluster) and throw the issue to the Congress (distraction), but he won’t withdraw from the deal (that’s the caving) because he knows by now it is better than no deal (that’s what the Israelis and Saudis are telling him). Instead, he’ll do something I think is quite sensible: focus on Iranian (mis)behavior in the Middle East, which is a real and growing problem.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) got this treatment. Trump feinted about withdrawal, then allowed months of distractions and ended up with a renegotiation the Canadians and Mexicans were happy to engage in, because they’ve got complaints about the current decades-old agreement as well. He did not do this with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which he simply withdrew. But that story may not be over yet. I suspect the US will eventually find its way back in, if the countries of the region want to continue the process.

There are of course things Trump just doesn’t like, so the bluster is real. The climate change treaty is one of those, though the recent storms seem to be making some Republicans think maybe we need to do something to reduce their likelihood, even if they don’t agree on human causation. I won’t be surprised if Trump, who once supported action on climate change as a businessman, changes his mind as well.

How is bluster/distract/cave working? Well enough domestically for Trump to retain his core support. But internationally it is a disaster. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you, is the general rule in international affairs. Watch the Russians, who are reacting vigorously against a president they once thought they owned. The Chinese aren’t likely to be friendly about it either. Trump is going to find himself where he did in the real estate business: a creditor only third tier institutions and individuals will do business with. It is no accident that he gets praise from people whose governance is notoriously corrupt.

Bluster/distract/cave won’t work on serious people, who learn quickly that all they really need to do is wait Trump out, so long as they have a decent alternative to a negotiated agreement.

Tags : , , , ,

Kim is winning because Trump

Permanent Representative Haley is pushing hard this week for a new UN Security Council resolution on North Korea, one that brings maximum economic pressure to bear, even as President Trump continues to mumble about military options rather than negotiations. Kim Jong-un appears to be paying neither any mind. Why not?

The short answer is BATNA: best alternative to a negotiated agreement. His is better than ours:

  • He can ignore our military bluster because he now has both a conventional deterrent–a massive artillery attack on Seoul–and a nuclear one. There can be no more doubting Pyongyang’s capability of hitting at least US allies (and the US forces stationed in them) with a nuclear weapon.
  • He can ignore the sanctions threat at least until he sees what emerges from the UNSC and whether China is inclined to comply with it fully. Barring North Korea’s trade without China is meaningless.

Our options are limited: we can threaten military action and tightened sanctions, but we can’t really do either unilaterally. Military action should at least require concurrence from South Korea, which is most exposed to the North’s artillery and understandably loathe to go in the military direction. Trade and financial sanctions require China’s cooperation. Threatening not to do business with any country or company that does business with North Korea may sound great, but our reliance on trade with China and Chinese companies precludes actually doing it.

Haley’s most striking rhetoric was her claim that Kim Jong-un is “begging for war.” That is simply untrue. He is deterring the US from a military strike, so far successfully, by demonstrating the North’s own military capabilities. It is far truer that President Trump in his tweets is begging for war, but the adults in the National Security Council and the Defense Department are likely showing him military options and consequences that are unappetizing at best, catastrophic at worst.

President Trump is not entirely to blame for this situation. The history of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is strewn with poor choices, both by American presidents and Pyongyang. The Americans have wanted to kick the can down the road. The North Koreans have preferred isolation to integration with the rest of the world. Neither the Americans nor the North Koreans have been willing to make decisions based on the real, but in the 1990s and 2000s long-term, threat of nuclear holocaust.

We are now approaching that long-term future. Haley has ruled out a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in exchange for a freeze on what the North quite reasonably views as hostile US and South Korean military preparations for a pre-emptive strike. The smart money is betting that is the best we are going to get, but Trump’s bluster precludes it. That said, he often backs down, after an effort at distraction. Bluster, distract, cave is his preferred style of (very poor) negotiation. He’d have done a lot better with an upfront assessment of his BATNA, which is what every first-year conflict management student learns at SAIS.

Tags : , , , ,

How low can he go?

Much lower I fear. While he has given a couple of half-sane, scripted speeches prepared with Chief of Staff Kelly’s approval, President Trump is still doing what he can to offend as soon as he is off the Teleprompter. Those who don’t approve of him are at this point about 60% of Americans and far higher percentages in most other countries. Russia and Israel are the exceptions. He is still launching ferocious attacks on the American media, retweeting anti-Semitic and racist tweeps, and slamming both Senate supporters and antagonists.

With August waning and an early Labor Day (September 4) looming in the US, prospects are for a difficult fall. The first item of business in the US Congress will be raising the debt ceiling and passing some sort of budget resolution. Trump has made that more difficult by insisting that the budget include money for the wall on the border he has promised the Mexicans would pay for. That’s a non-starter for the Democrats, who have some say in the Senate because 60 votes are needed on the budget issues. Tax reform, which so far means a big tax cut to businesses like Trump’s own, will have to wait. Never mind the promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program.

Trump wants the budget resolved by eliminating the filibuster and allowing bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. That is a proposition even more controversial than the wall, so he is publicly hounding Senate Majority leader McConnell into changing Senate rules to allow it. That’s not a way to make friends in the Senate, but so long as the Republicans control the House Trump can be sure it won’t impeach him (which has to precede sending him to the Senate for trial).

While America tries to sort out its internal political mess, the rest of the world is trying to make do without much clarity from Washington. In Asia, China is seizing the initiative on trade and finance, pushing its “belt and road” projects all the way to the Middle East and Africa. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile lately, and there seem to be talks about talks going on behind the scenes with the US, but the prospects of denuclearizing Pyongyang have dropped to zero.

In the Middle East, Syria’s President Assad is still advancing, as are the US-supported, Kurdish-led forces trying to take Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is being pressed by the UN and everyone else to drop its demand that Assad step aside. Civilian casualties from American and other air attacks in the battle for Raqqa are mounting.

Defense Secretary Mattis is promising Turkey the US will help fight against Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in Iraq, even as it supports their affiliates in Syria. That’s going to be a hard circle to square. Iraq is also making progress against the Islamic State, but Baghdad still hasn’t convinced its own Kurdistan to call off its independence referendum, scheduled for September 25 but increasingly in doubt.

Jared Kushner is plugging away at the Israel/Palestine issues, in visits to Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem. No one is expecting much to come of his efforts. The State Department has refused to reiterate US commitment to a two-state solution, which (as Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter) represents the single largest concession the Palestinians have made to date. Not that anyone had much doubt about which side the Trump Administration was on. We’ll presumably now be treated to the spectacle of Israel and the US proposing various confidence-building measures meant to make life and the economy more palatable for the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Jewish settlements expand and kill off any remaining hope for a two-state solution.

This is enabled in part by some Arab states coming to the conclusion that they care more about countering Iran than supporting the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emiratis seem prepared to collaborate with Israel against Iran, even if Qatar, Iraq, and Oman are headed in the opposite direction. Yemen no longer counts, since it is being obliterated in the Gulf-led war against the Houthi rebellion. Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are likewise out of the game for now. Egypt and Jordan have made their peace with Israel and have no choice but to keep it.

Trump is increasingly marginalized from all these developments. Weakness at home leads to weakness abroad. His only major push on foreign policy lately has been the renewal and expansion of the American military push in Afghanistan. This allegedly new strategy closely resembles his predecessor’s effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Like Obama, Trump doesn’t want to be blamed for losing Afghanistan, even if it proves impossible to keep his promise to win there.

We can still sink lower: North Korea could test another missile, the Palestinians could tell Kushner where to go, Trump could renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and the country’s long recovery from the financial crisis of 2007/8 could end. But most of all: we could continue to fail to deal with a president who is unqualified, mean-spirited, incompetent, and divisive. Let’s hope Special Counsel Mueller comes up with something compelling, sooner rather than later.

 

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My Balkans Q and A

Albatrit Matoshi of Pristina daily Zeri asked questions last week. I replied:

  1. Not even two months after the parliamentary elections in Kosovo, the central institutions can not be formed as a result of political disunity. Is Kosovo losing ground to international institutions as a result of this political stalemate?

A: There are surely costs to the political stalemate, but “hung” parliaments happen. Even in much more experienced democracies, politicians often take months to form a new government. In the meanwhile, there is a caretaker in place. I trust it is doing the ordinary and necessary business of government.

  1. The Coalition PAN (PDK-AAK-NISMA) has emerged the largest in the June 11 elections, but it faces lack the necessary numbers to form the Assembly and the Government. In the absence of the necessary votes, this coalition is not participating in Assembly sessions, despite the invitation of the US, Germany, France, England, Italy to attend the Assembly. Should political representatives find compromise solutions, as the country risks again to go to extraordinary elections?

A: I hope people will make every effort to come to a compromise solution rather than new elections, but that decision is up to Kosovars, not foreigners.

  1. Should President Hashim Thaçi give the mandate to the second party, in this case to the “Vetëvendosje” candidate for Prime Minister Albin Kurti, if Ramush Haradinaj fails within the legal deadline to form the Government?

A: I am not a lawyer, but the Kosovo Constitution says the President “appoints the candidate for Prime Minister for the establishment of the Government after proposal by the political party or coalition holding the majority in the Assembly.” It seems to me Vetëvendosje would get a mandate if it can propose a government with support of the majority in the Assembly.

  1. In the absence of the Assembly and the Government, Kosovo has not yet ratified the demarcation agreement with Montenegro. If Ramush Haradinaj is elected prime minister, who has mostly objected to this agreement, do you expect that this issue will be resolved?

A: You will have to ask him. I know of no reasonable basis on which to continue opposition to demarcation.

  1. Is the EU likely to abolish visas for Kosovo if the demarcation agreement is sent to international arbitration?

A: You’ll have to ask the EU.

  1. If demarcation is voted in the Assembly, how many months will be needed until the start of the visa-free travel to the EU, given the fact that there are elections in some member states?

A: Again: this is a question for the Europeans.

  1. The new Kosovo government, if formed by a simple parliamentary majority, will face a strong opposition and at the same time will be dependent on the votes of Serbian MPs working under the directives of the Government of Serbia. How stable will be such a government, which will not really have the votes to pass the demarcation agreement, the Association of Municipalities with Serbian Majority, etc.?

A: That doesn’t sound like a formula for stability, but we’ll have to wait and see.

  1. It has been announced that dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia can take place at the level of presidents. How realistic is the move of the dialogue at such stage?

A: The Presidents have established a mutually respectful rapport, which should be sustained. But certainly political instability on the Pristina side could make the dialogue difficult. On the Belgrade side, things look pretty stable for now, even if some contest the validity of the last election.

  1. Serbia’s President Vucic has announced an internal debate on Kosovo. Do you expect the leadership in Belgrade in the framework of the Euro-integration process to remove Kosovo from its constitution?

A: I expect Serbia in the framework of the Euro-integration process to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo, including (but not only) by removing it from the constitution. Kosovo UN membership and exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level should follow. The question is whether this will be done at the last moment before EU accession, when the negotiating leverage will be entirely on the EU side, or earlier, when Belgrade can hope to get a better deal. I think it is better to do it sooner rather than later, but of course that is up to Serbs, not foreigners, and will depend on the outcome of the internal debate the President has proposed.

Marija Jovicevic of Montenegro daily Pobjeda also asked some questions last week. I replied: 

  1. Serbia will be host of a NATO army exercise in October 2018. Do You think that Montenegro entering NATO is a signal for all other countries in region that Alliance has no alternative?

A: No, I think other countries have a choice to make. There is nothing inevitable about NATO, which only accepts those who are prepared to make the necessary reforms and to contribute positively to the Alliance. Serbia will want to consider all its options.

2. Do you see all of the Western Balkan region in NATO?

A: I might hope for that, but so far only Macedonia and Kosovo have committed to eventual NATO membership, once they meet the necessary requirements. Bosnia and Serbia are hesitating, for obvious reasons. NATO will be fine without them. The question is whether they would be better off with NATO and whether they are prepared to make the necessary commitments.

3. Do You think that Montenegro can be host of a NATO base in future?

A: Best to ask NATO about this possibility. I am not aware of any Alliance requirement for a base in Montenegro right now, though I suppose all of Montenegro’s bases are now in some sense “NATO.”

Tags : , ,

Nonproliferation shortcomings

Pantelis Ikonomou, former International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards inspector, writes:

The on-going North Korean nuclear crisis, in addition to the previous nuclear crises with Iraq and Iran, demonstrates that we lack a coherent, peaceful approach to respond decisively to major nuclear proliferation threats.

In all three cases, world leaders have wavered between war and diplomacy. The results have been suboptimal.

Iraq: war was an excessive response

In September 1980, Iranian airplanes bombed Iraq’s* French-origin research reactor Osiraq. The facility was partially destroyed. Teheran called the attack a preventive act. Notably, Iraq was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), subject to international Safeguards inspections, and free of anomaly reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Eight months later, in June 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the Osiraq reactor. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the UN General Assembly, and the world’s mass media rebuked the Israelis for the attack. Remarkably, the US administration called it an act of defense.

In 2003, the United States accused Iraq of having restarted a nuclear weapons program. Reference was made to nuclear weapons related activities, detected in 1991 during the first war Gulf War. This embryonic nuclear program was destroyed by international inspectors immediately thereafter. The IAEA did not support the 2003 allegations. Nonetheless, the US decided that diplomacy had failed and, without UN endorsement, invaded Iraq with a coalition of the willing.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq did not disclose a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In 2005, the IAEA’s Director General ElBaradei and nuclear inspectors were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Iran: limited diplomatic postponement

Iran’s nuclear program included sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities, such as enrichment and reprocessing. These were conducted in line with the NPT, but nonetheless contained a possible military dimension. The existence of dual-purpose nuclear activities within the NPT constitutes the Treaty’s Achilles heel. While presumed nefarious intentions can cause heightened alertness, they cannot be legally penalized.

Iran’s steady development of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities caused international concern that slowly developed into a crisis. In the years after 2006, the UNSC imposed economic and trade sanctions, leading to diplomatic negotiations with Iran by the P5+1: the US, Russia, China, UK, France plus Germany. The July 2015 P5+1 nuclear agreement imposes a 10- 15-year reduction and freeze of Iran’s sensitive activities along with gradual lifting of sanctions.

IAEA inspectors are monitoring and verifying the implementation of an agreed plan, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If Iran breaks out of the 2015 agreement, it would need ten months or longer to produce the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon, which is enough time for response measures.

North Korea: an on-going threat

North Korea joined the IAEA in 1974, signed the NPT in 1985 and in 1992 signed its NPT Safeguards Agreement. From the very beginning, Pyongyang’s behavior was not consistent with its binding international commitments. Already in 1992, IAEA inspectors found inconsistencies in North Korea’s declarations and the year after North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT.

Just one day before the withdrawal was due to take effect, the US persuaded North Korea to suspend its decision. Six months later, in December 1993, IAEA Director General Hans Blix announced that the Agency could no longer provide “any meaningful assurances” that North Korea was not producing nuclear weapons.

A US initiative saved the situation. On 21 October 1994, an Agreed Framework was signed between the US and North Korea in Geneva. The UNSC then requested the IAEA to monitor the freeze of North Korea’s nuclear facilities under the Agreed Framework.

In December 2002, North Korea tampered with IAEA surveillance equipment and a few days later requested the immediate removal of IAEA inspectors from the country. Then, on 10 January 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT and in April 2003 declared it had nuclear weapons.

During the six-party talks (USA, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea) starting in 2003 on solving North Korea’s nuclear crisis, North Korea was repeatedly accused of violating the Agreed Framework and other international agreements, thus triggering several IAEA and UNSC resolutions.

North Korea’s capability to produce both plutonium and uranium nuclear weapons is rapidly advancing. Its capacity to enrich uranium has doubled in recent years. US and Chinese officials believe that there are more than 20 nuclear bombs in its arsenal.

The best that can be hoped for with North Korea is an immediate freeze of nuclear and ballistic missile activities. A return to zero nuclear weapons capability is a utopian expectation. With only one exception, no non-NPT member with nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, and possibly Israel) has ever returned to zero nuclear weapons capability or indicated intentions to do so. The one exception is South Africa, which voluntarily destroyed its nuclear weapons in 1990 under IAEA supervision, as apartheid fell.

Conclusions

Though nuclear proliferation is a leading global threat, we have failed to demonstrate sufficient competence in responding.

The rhetoric of terror on both sides combined with the risk of miscalculation or a military error is extremely worrying. It only accelerates a dangerous nuclear vicious cycle.

PS: With apologies to Dr. Ikonomou, this seems an only slightly appropriate place at which to share John Oliver’s view of North Korea and prospects for opening good communications, among other things via the accordion:

*The original mistakenly said “Iran’s.” Apologies for the editorial error.

Tags : , , , , , , ,

Don’t forget political transition

One hundred and sixty-nine Syrian civil society organizations have written a letter to UN Special Envoy Stefano de Mistura, urging that the focus of negotiations in Geneva remain on an inclusive political transition to a free and democratic Syria. Courtesy of @snhr, here is what they had to say: 

Your Excellency,

Following the seventh round of peace negotiations, we write to you on behalf of the undersigned Syrian civil society organisations who work every day under unbearable circumstances to improve the living conditions of millions of Syrians. We represent the voices from the ground and our work across the country in the fields of medical and humanitarian assistance, education, freedom of expression, youth and women empowerment, and accountability and justice proves again the fundamental role Syrian civil society plays as a champion for a democratic and inclusive Syria.

As a vital resource for the Syrian population trapped between a tyrannical regime and the brutality of extremism, Syrian civil society organisations strongly support any efforts to bring an end to the Syria conflict. This is why many of our representatives have participated in the intra-Syrian peace talks within the framework of the Civil Society Support Room and have been active in supporting the Geneva peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime.

Sadly, the Geneva process has delivered neither peace nor protection to the Syrian people who are increasingly disillusioned with a process that continues to fail them. We are keen to reverse this trend as without the support of Syrian civil society no political deal will be either sustainable or legitimate, and right now the current process is losing our support. Syrian civil society’s priority is to achieve an inclusive transition to a free and democratic Syria. We are all united around this outcome which defines the basis of the Geneva peace process as set out by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and as reiterated in your mandate as UN Special Envoy for Syria.

We expect all parties in Geneva – including you – to work for this purpose and engage in serious negotiations. The time consumed on discussions around process and representation, at the expense of a credible and realistic political deal for transition towards democracy, is not only wasting precious time but it is also undermining the international community’s efforts to fight terrorism in Syria. Syrian civil society activities are essential in the fight against extremism. Moderate voices – as we represent – have the power to push back against the extremist forces and fill the vacuum on the ground. But to be able to do so, we need the international community to protect our ability to assist and serve our people. This is why we need the Geneva process to prioritise the protection of civilians and deliver meaningful negotiations that lead to peace for Syria.

It seems to me they make some excellent points, including the importance of moderate voices in countering extremism and of civilian protection. These points are too often being lost in a world consumed focused on military success and worried more about who will win than about how Syria will be governed after the war.  

Tags : ,
Tweet