We are waiting. Waiting for a quick decision on whether the US will renew its agreement with Russia to extend the New Start Treaty, that cuts the long-range nuclear weapons each possesses by 1550 (a 30% cut). It’s due to expire in just over a month on February 5th. The Russians have said they want to renew it. President Donald Trump has done nothing about nuclear arms control- despite ridiculously being accused at home of being in President Vladimir Putin’s pocket. Indeed, he has made Russia more vulnerable to a nuclear attack than it was before he came into office.
Anti-Russian feeling among many Western electorates and governments- Germany and Italy apart- has heightened over the last years. It’s difficult to recall the fraternity that broke out following the demise of communism. Yes, Russia has been an irritant, sometimes badly behaved, but in no way a threat.
After going through 45 years of a Cold War we should be wiser now. We learnt painfully slowly during that period of hostile relations with the USSR, with nuclear missiles on hair-finger alert, that it is too easy to heighten every defect of the opposing side and to minimize every virtue. We must return to what Winston described as “jaw jaw” rather than “war war”.
The essence of negotiation is communication, yet national stereotypes make negotiations between nations of different political leanings, ideology, religion and colour prone to misunderstanding.
Henry Kissinger, a former Secretary of State, observing the differences between Moscow and Washington, has written, “The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men, feeling their way round a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other side, whom he assumes to have perfect vision. Each side should know that uncertainty and incoherence are often the essence of policy making. Yet each tends to ascribe to the other a consistency, foresight and coherence that its own experience belies”. These wise words come from a man who, when a young Harvard professor, wrote that nuclear weapons could be used. His somersault towards being against any possession of nuclear weapons, which other top ex-foreign policy officials have emulated, should be taken most seriously.
To prove Kissinger’s point one has only to recollect the turbulent events surrounding the final stages of the SALT 2 Treaty, meant to cut the number of nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles. Faced with a high degree of Senate opposition to its ratification the administration of Jimmy Carter took every opportunity to present a tough as face as possible towards Moscow, convinced that this would help pull the sting of those senators who thought SALT was cast in the Soviet’s favor.
Inopportunely, right in the middle of the debate, the CIA discovered in Cuba a Soviet combat brigade. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance felt pushed to say this was unacceptable and SALT 2 would inevitably be held up if the brigade were not removed. The Soviets were both furious and intransigent, saying they couldn’t understand the fuss; the brigade had been in Cuba for the last 17 years.
President Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union was convinced that the Americans were raising the issue only to win one last-minute concession. In fact, as I was later told privately by Vance when we were both in Moscow, the CIA had misled the administration, but by the time he and Carter found this out the treaty was sunk beyond rescue.
Such is the way that negative images govern perceptions even in the face of tolerable behavior by the other side.
Let us look at another example- the Suez crisis of 1956 which was provoked by President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company. Britain and France, the major shareholders, regarded Nasser’s challenge as aggression and, in collusion with Israel, drew up plans for an invasion to seize back the canal from Egypt.
The US decided to frontally and publically oppose its allies. Even allies found they couldn’t understand each other. The US was worried about endangering its interests in the Arab world and alienating nascent Third World opinion in the heady days of the independence movement; and by superpower confrontation since the USSR had rushed to Nasser’s side.
In the end, the US blatantly used its economic muscle to force Britain to halt the Anglo-French advance down the canal.
How could such close allies misread each other’s intentions? Partly the British took American friendship too much for granted. Not least, the Americans believed that the chorus of hostile parliamentary and press opinion in Britain would stay Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s hand.
The Americans missed the point that in Eden’s mind the main threat to him came from the right, from those of his old colleagues who like him had resigned from the Chamberlain government over the “appeasement” of Hitler and believed history was repeating itself.
In total contrast as an exercise in positive communication were the final crucial stages of the grand negotiation which led to the Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in space and under water. It was the first instance of nuclear arms control. President John Kennedy and premier Nikita Khrushchev, so-called arch enemies, consciously pushed to one side evidence that reinforced images of enmity and so found that they could work to overcome vast areas of mistrust.
Ironically, the final impetus for agreement grew out of the total lack of understanding and miscalculation that a year earlier had led to the Cuban missile crisis, a confrontation that brought the world to the edge of a nuclear war.
Until the Cuban crisis both sides had negotiated as if they believed that the other side would stop at nothing to take unilateral advantage and would lie, cheat, misrepresent and mislead in order to push its objective.
But Kennedy, drawing on his experience of Khrushchev’s behavior over Cuba, realized just how boxed in Khrushchev was by hard liners, and thus how important it was to disregard much of the heavy rhetoric that came out of Moscow and concentrate instead on the subtle hints of compromise.
Khrushchev worked the same way with Kennedy, who also at home confronted powerful voices who thought he was selling out. They had easy access to the media which, with a couple of exceptions, was firmly anti- Soviet. Step by step the two leaders developed an important degree of mutual trust, made partly possible by a private correspondence that avoided the usual official channels of communication.
Only such an approach today would help us avoid another Cold War with Russia, or confrontation with Iran, parts of the Islamic world or China.
We have to watch ourselves from taking those first dangerous steps based on ignorance, exaggeration and misrepresentation that turn those who are just different into evil unreachable bogeymen.
Sadly, too many signs still point to our inability to see the beam in our own eye. When will we ever learn? We have seen the enemy and too often it is us. In 2021 we must try to be different. Refusing to compromise is not a sign of toughness. It is a sign of intransigence. Leaders should follow their inner compass, not the roar of the crowd.