Archive for the ‘Diplomacy’ Category

The National Security Emergency We’re Not Talking About

November 30, 2017

Madeleine K. Albright (Secretary of State, 1997-2001; United Nations, 1993-1997)

Cross posted from the New York Times

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America’s diplomatic professionals have issued a dire warning about the crisis facing the State Department: Scores of top diplomats, including some of our highest-ranked career Foreign Service officers, have left the agency at “a dizzying speed” over the past 10 months.

“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events,” wrote former ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).

As a former secretary of state, I agree. This is not a story that has two sides. It is simply a fact that the United States relies on diplomacy as our first line of defense — to cement alliances, build coalitions, address global problems and find ways to protect our interests without resorting to military force. When we must use force, as in the fight against the Islamic State, our diplomats ensure that we can do so effectively and with the cooperation of other countries.

Change within the Foreign Service and the State Department’s civil service is not unusual. In fact, the system is designed to bring in fresh blood on a regular basis. There is, however, a big difference between a transfusion and an open wound. There is nothing normal about the current exodus. President Trump is aware of the situation and has made clear that he doesn’t care: “I’m the only one that matters,” he told Fox News.

Sadly, the official who should be highlighting the State Department’s vital role has not done so. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that the department is being hollowed out even while defending the president’s plan for a massive reduction in his agency’s budget. Meanwhile, for reasons that make sense only to him, Tillerson has delayed filling many of the most important diplomatic posts in Washington and overseas. All too often, foreign officials have sought to engage the department at a high level only to find no one with whom they can speak.

The administration’s disdain for diplomacy would be alarming under any circumstances, but two factors make it worse. First, while the United States is tying a rope around its feet, our competitors are running ahead. Trump’s recent trip to Asia was considered by many a success because there were no obvious disasters, but that is hardly a reassuring standard by which to judge the performance of an American commander in chief. The fact is that on trade and climate change, the U.S. government is now irrelevant; on security issues, we are ineffective; and on the use of cybertools to undercut democracy, we have a president who believes Vladimir Putin.

Second, the damage being done to America’s diplomatic readiness is both intentional and long-term. The administration isn’t hurting the State Department by accident. Tillerson maintained a freeze on hiring long after most other Cabinet officials had stopped. The number of promotions has been cut in half and the quantity of incoming Foreign Service officers by more than two-thirds. He is effectively shutting down the State Department’s pipeline for new talent.

As a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I see the consequences of all this firsthand. In the past, my best students have come to me seeking advice on how to enter public service. Now, more and more are telling me they do not see a future for themselves in government. In some cases, this is because they disagree with administration policies, but more often it is because they fear that their efforts and pursuit of excellence would not be valued.

This was never a problem under President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush, but it is a problem now. According to AFSA, the number of individuals taking the Foreign Service exam this year is on track to plummet by more than 50 percent.

If the U.S. military were facing a recruitment and retention crisis of this magnitude, few would hesitate to call it a national security emergency. Well, that is what we are facing. And while it saddens me to criticize one of my successors, I have to speak out because the stakes are so high.

What can we do? We can support bipartisan-minded leaders in Congress who have rejected the reckless cuts the administration proposed in our country’s budget for international affairs. We can amplify these warnings about the hollowing out of the State Department. We can strengthen our case by enlisting business leaders who understand the importance of the work our embassies do across the globe. We can help young people understand that time is sure to bring new leaders with more enlightened ideas about the importance of diplomacy and development to the interests and values of the American people.

Whenever my students ask me whether they should serve in government under this administration, I remind them that the reason we love America so much is that, here, the government is not one man or woman. The government is us, and public service is both a great privilege and a shared responsibility. This is our republic. We must do all we can to keep it strong.

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Dismantling the Foreign Service

November 28, 2017

R. Nicholas Burns (Greece, 1997-2001; NATO, 2001-2005; Under Secretary for Political Affairs, 2005-2008)

Ryan Crocker (Lebanon, 1990-1993; Kuwait, 1994-1997; Syria, 1998-2001; Pakistan, 2004-2007; Iraq, 2007-2009; Afghanistan, 2011-2012)

Cross posted from The New York Times

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The Foreign Service, our country’s irreplaceable asset for understanding and interacting with a complex and dangerous world, is facing perhaps its greatest crisis. President Trump’s draconian budget cuts for the State Department and his dismissive attitude toward our diplomats and diplomacy itself threaten to dismantle a great foreign service just when we need it most.

The United States is facing an extraordinary set of national security challenges. While we count on our military ultimately to defend the country, our diplomats are with it on front lines and in dangerous places around the world. They are our lead negotiators as we work with our European allies in NATO to contain growing Russian power on the Continent. They are our lead negotiators seeking a peaceful end to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Our diplomats are assembling the coalition of countries in East Asia to counter the irresponsible regime of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Foreign Service officers in more than 280 embassies and consulates aid American citizens in trouble overseas, help American companies overcome unfair barriers to trade and investment, coordinate counterterrorism and narcotics programs and manage development and humanitarian aid to distressed countries.

Diplomats negotiate the landing and basing arrangements for American troops overseas, such as at Central Command’s major Middle East base in Qatar. Our strongest and smartest presidents have known that integrating our diplomatic and military strategies is the most effective way to succeed in the world today.

Both of us served overseas and in Washington for decades as career diplomats. We were ambassadors during both Republican and Democratic administrations. We are proud of the nonpartisan culture of our brethren at the State Department. President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can count on them to work tirelessly, loyally and with great skill for our country.

But we are concerned the Trump administration is weakening the Foreign Service by a series of misguided decisions since taking office. It has proposed a 31 percent budget reduction for the State Department that would cripple its global reach. It has failed to fill the majority of the most senior ambassadorial positions in Washington and overseas. It is on track to take the lowest number of new officers into the service in years.

It has even nominated a former officer with a scant eight years of experience to be the director general of the Foreign Service, the chief of its personnel system. The nonpartisan American Academy of Diplomacy (of which we both are members) advised Congress that this would be “like making a former Army captain the chief of staff of the Army.”

As a result, many of our most experienced diplomats are leaving the department. Along with the senior diplomats who were summarily fired by the Trump team early this year, we are witnessing the most significant departure of diplomatic talent in generations. The drop in morale among those who remain behind is obvious to both of us. The number of young Americans who applied to take the Foreign Service officer entry test declined by 33 percent in the past year. This is particularly discouraging and will weaken the service for years.

We are not arguing that the State Department is a perfectly functioning agency that requires no improvements. We support creating a culture of reform and renewal at the department. The Trump administration is right to look for budget and operational inefficiencies to ensure the best use of taxpayers’ money. We also agree with the American academy’s support for the elimination of more than 60 special envoy positions to save money and improve effectiveness. The Trump team should additionally consider shifting more positions from Washington to diplomatic posts overseas.

The recent decision by Mr. Tillerson to downsize the Foreign Service by up to 8 percent of the entire officer corps, however, is particularly dangerous. The Foreign Service, which has about 8,000 officers who do core diplomatic work, is a fraction of the size of the military. The service is already overwhelmed by the growing challenges to the United States on every continent. In our view, Mr. Tillerson has failed to make a convincing case as to why deep cuts will strengthen, rather than weaken, the service, and thus the nation. This is not about belt tightening. It is a deliberate effort to deconstruct the State Department and the Foreign Service.

That is why Congress must now exercise its constitutional responsibilities to overrule the most dangerous aspects of the administration’s plans. House and Senate committees must continue to oppose the huge budget cuts. Congressional committee chairmen should block the appointments of Trump nominees clearly unqualified for service. And Congress should ensure that there are sufficient funds to entice patriotic young Americans to join the Foreign Service. Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, are leading the bipartisan questioning of Mr. Tillerson’s hiring freeze and warning of its dire consequences.

We are ringing the village bell in alarm because Mr. Trump’s neglect of the State Department will harm our country at an already dangerous time. The Foreign Service is a jewel of the American national security establishment, with the deepest and most effective diplomatic corps in the world. All that is now at risk.

Albert Einstein, Donald Trump and North Korea

November 3, 2017

Thomas A. Loftus (U.S. Ambassador to Norway, 1993-1997)

Cross posted from The Cap Times

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Seventy years ago Albert Einstein, in an Atlantic Magazine article entitled “Atomic War or Peace,” changed American opinion on the use of nuclear weapons.

Einstein’s intended audience in 1947 was the American people, not politicians or generals. His message: “Americans may be convinced of their determination not to launch an aggressive or preventative war. So they may believe it is superfluous to announce publicly that they will not a second time be the first to use the atomic bomb.” Einstein thought refusing to publicly outlaw first use of the bomb was a mistake.

Einstein’s immense credibility and the lucidity of his reasoning had great influence on the generation that had gone through WWII. It offered a way forward to a future without nuclear war. His ideas to contain nuclear weapons would continue to be influential after the Korean War and with baby boomers who grew up in the Cold War always thinking there might be a mushroom cloud in their future.

President Trump’s trip to Asia this month gives an opportunity to change course by stating a policy the two Koreas, Japan and China understand. #1. We will honor our treaty commitments. The United States, by treaty, is responsible for the defense of Japan and South Korea. It is called a mutual defense treaty. #2. We do not want Japan or South Korea to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. #3. We will not introduce nuclear weapons into South Korea, including so-called tactical weapons. #4. We will open talks with North Korea with no preconditions.

Today we stumble toward a war with North Korea where nuclear weapons could be unleashed, not only intentionally following a war of words by the countries’ two leaders, but through accident or miscalculation.

There are questions as to whether the North Korean early-warning system is fail safe, meaning its pre-programmed softwear could trigger a counterattack by mistake. And should North Korea develop a solid fuel rocket, the danger of war by mistake increases.

I personally experienced how frighteningly easy it would be for mixed signals to result in a nuclear conflagration. As the United States ambassador to Norway, I was at the Andoya Rocket Range in north Norway on Jan. 19, 1995, to meet scientists from Cornell University on a research project. The next day a powerful rocket, the Black Brant XII, would be launched, and would pretty much go straight up and peak at a height of 1,400 kilometers. The goal of the research was to gather data on something new: a daytime look at the northern lights. Shortly after launch, the Russian early-warning system tagged it as an attack because the system was programmed to calculate the height, arc and speed of an incoming missile and trigger a counterstrike based on that. Luckily the Russian officer of the day figured out the system got it wrong and stopped the alert. But still, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was given the Black Box and his unsteady finger was on the nuclear trigger for the next 24 hours.

If we enacted a policy that includes the four points above, the risk of both an intentional launch of a nuclear weapon and the mistaken launch of one would diminish.

In high school, I read Einstein’s article, which was reproduced as a short book. To us, war was not abstract. We practiced in school what to do when the Soviets dropped the bomb. Five miles from Sun Prairie where I grew up, Truax Field in Madison housed an Air Force Nike missile base assumed to a Soviet target. Highways were marked for evacuation routes. A big issue in the 1960 presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon was the “missile gap.” The morality of dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was being debated and it was becoming common knowledge that after China entered the Korean War there had been a plan by the generals to drop the atomic bomb on North Korea. And perhaps it would have happened had we not had civilian control of the military.

The stated goal of the current administration is to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. This isn’t a realistic goal. We need to pursue the four points above, along with Einstein’s admonition that America “will not a second time be the first to use the atomic bomb.”

But how do the American people become motivated enough to inform the politicians and generals and the ersatz Dr. Strangeloves of today of their disagreement with a muddled, contradictory, war-risking policy where what passes for lucidity is the phrase, “Everything is on the table”?

Here is how Einstein said it: “The atomic scientists, I think, have become convinced that they cannot arouse the American people to the truths of the atomic era by logic alone. There must be added that deep power of emotion which is a basic ingredient of religion. It is to be hoped that not only the churches but the schools, the colleges, and the leading organs of opinion will acquit themselves well of their unique responsibility in this regard.”

Americans can learn from the struggles and wins of Rwandan women

October 6, 2017

Swanee Hunt (U.S. Ambassador to Austria, 1993-1997; Chair, Inclusive Security)

Cross posted from The Hill

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If the hand-wringing of pundits has left you in despair that this country is beyond healing, learn from the women of Rwanda.

Most people rightly recall that small nation in East Africa as the site of a 1994 genocide of unspeakable brutality, in which as many as one million (mostly Tutsi) died in a span of 100 days. With machetes and clubs, Hutu extremists slaughtered not only neighbors, but even Tutsi in their own families. The country was decimated — the equivalent of 32 million Americans murdered this fall.

What fewer people know is that when the killing ended, the impossible happened. Women created 15,000 village councils that formed a leadership pipeline; they designed a grass-roots justice process that allowed healing; they took on influential roles historically denied them.

As chaos cracked open the culture, women surged into the breach: today they hold a world-record 64 percent of parliamentary seats. They passed landmark legislation enabling females to inherit property, which opened paths to economic opportunity.

An astounding 55,000 community health workers have been elected by their neighborhoods. Illiteracy has plummeted, thanks in part to compulsory education for girls as well as boys through the 9th grade.

These advances, forged primarily by women, have made Rwanda the gold standard for development in Africa. Virtually free of corruption, the nation’s annual economic growth has averaged eight percent.

Over the past two decades, Rwanda’s women have built bridges across the deepest chasm imaginable. To put a lid on strife, the government forbade the use of ethnic labels. And women took transformative reconciliation an unfathomable step further, adopting hundreds of thousands of orphans of the other group.

Why should this matter to Americans? Of course we should care as humanitarians. But there’s another reason. It’s at the heart of our security, our well-being, and our pocket books.

It’s a matter of insistent cooperation. Compared to men, American women co-sponsor more bills across party lines, and the huge majority declare to researchers that they’re more willing to reach across aisles. The examples are usually little known, but sometimes front- page “above the fold.” A few weeks ago, women in the Senate joined hands to protect healthcare for the poor. And remember 2013, when they dramatically banded together to avert a government shutdown.

Of course, we’ve seen only hints of what collaboration can mean in our Congress. That’s primarily because women’s representation the United States doesn’t come close to our Rwandan counterparts. Just 20 percent of our Congress is female, far from the “critical mass” (around 30 percent) that can reshape an institution.

Embarrassingly, 120 countries have a higher percent of women legislators than we do.

How do we change this? Americans aren’t going to formalize a gender quota, which is a matter of course in most countries. But our political parties could adopt minimums to reduce the huge disparity of men to women. In fact, one-third of Congressional Democrats are female; the problem is that the GOP women’s caucus has only eight percent. Republican women do run, but they have a very hard time getting out of their primary races, which are closely guarded by good ol’ boys.

Apart from quotas, we can embrace other Rwandan strategies. There, women rose because of a pull from the top and push up from the bottom. Cues from leadership matter; in both parties, high officials should be urging specific women to run, then supporting them with money and top talent to break through and win.

But let’s take apart our situation further: As Rwandan women graduated from their village boards to climbed a ladder of councils, they built a knowledge base of issues as well as the political process, and they formed professional connections. Likewise, we can support an unruly female crowd to step onto political rungs from city-wide boards to major municipal and state-wide offices. Every one of us could join organizations like She Should Run or Running Start, and encourage women we know to throw their hats in the ring.

The good news is that U.S. women compete evenly in open-seat races. Our structural problem is that Congressional incumbents (mostly men) are re-elected at a rate well over a whopping 90 percent. Some doors may open in 2018 since an unusual number of Republican men are likely not to run again, in part because home district resistance to President Trump’s policies is so vociferous.

Genocide has no silver lining. Still, Rwanda is our teacher. If women there reinvented a country out of smoldering ashes, surely we Americans can clear the way for women to break gridlock, embrace differences, and restore civility in our country.

America Needs More Ambassadors and We Need Them Now

September 29, 2017

Nancy Brinker (Ambassador to Hungary, 2001-2003; Chief of Protocol, 2007-2009)

Cross posted from FoxNews.com

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America stands in the midst of great challenges at home and threats from abroad. If we fail in our duty to sustain and foster stronger ties between nations, then we run the risk of fracturing centuries-old alliances that have served to keep our people safe and prosperous.

The president of the United States – in addition to his duties as commander-in-chief, healer-in-chief and chief executive – is also our chief diplomat. In this capacity, he is granted the constitutional responsibility of appointing ambassadors to serve as our top representatives on the ground in nearly 200 nations across the globe.

Our ambassadors represent our eyes and ears inside each of these nations, overseeing a team of career diplomats and representatives of vital U.S. organizations. The diplomatic corps represents the best exchange program America has to offer, and it is up to our ambassadors to lobby for our interests with presidents, chancellors, kings and prime ministers in each of these countries.

Yet, according to the American Foreign Service Association, only 47 ambassadors out of 188 positions we should have filled have been nominated. On average, it has taken three months for Trump administration ambassador nominees to be confirmed from the time they are nominated.

With aggression from North Korea and Russia on the rise, and stability in the Middle East in short supply, our current lack of ambassadors hinders friendships, imperils economic development and undermines our national security.

It is in America’s best interest that the Trump administration move swiftly to name ambassadors to these vacant posts. It is also incumbent upon Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to heed the president’s calls for bipartisanship and come together and swiftly confirm them.

Ambassadors come from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds. They are strong leaders, pragmatic negotiators and skilled managers with tremendous experience. They are recruited from both the public and private sectors and carry with them a vast portfolio of knowledge and important relationships that have been accumulated over decades.

From governors, to real estate magnates, to professional football team owners and educators, every ambassador is different from the next, and each brings his or her own personal touch to the countries they are stationed in. Foreign service officers are conducting yeoman’s work, and they rightly deserve to be praised for it. However, it is our ambassadors who bear the blessing of the president.

To his credit, President Trump has already nominated some exemplary statesmen to serve on behalf of our nation’s interests abroad. Jon Huntsman, Terry Branstad and Richard Grenell are highly capable and more than prepared to serve with distinction in Russia, China and Germany.

Taken together, their experience in government and business will help grow and maintain goodwill for America, foster relationships with international corporations, and illustrate to friend and foe alike that the United States is prepared to bring the full force of our diplomacy efforts to international crises.

Having served as ambassador to the Republic of Hungary from 2001-2003, I know that ambassadors are the best conduit to serve on the front lines of protecting and promoting American interests in an increasingly interconnected world.

I began my work in Budapest 15 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. With a staff of over 400 people, we helped further economic and security interests, and even developed stronger cultural ties between our nations through art and humanitarian causes, including a march over the Chain Bridge in Budapest to raise awareness for breast cancer.

If America wants to have more friends, then we must be a friend first. With aggression from North Korea and Russia on the rise, and stability in the Middle East in short supply, our current lack of ambassadors hinders friendships, imperils economic development and undermines our national security.

President Trump offered a forceful speech and candid assessment of world affairs at the U.N. General Assembly. Congress must work with him to nominate and confirm more ambassadors as quickly as possible.

Nancy Brinker is founder of Susan G. Komen and Race for the Cure.

Art and meaning and ties between cultures – 140 Twitter characters will only get us so far

July 18, 2017

Nancy Brinker (U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, 2001-2003; U.S. Chief of Protocol, 2007-2009)

Cross posted from Fox News Opinion

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Inside the ever-evolving world of communications it is clear that technology sits at the center of our conversations. Never before has it been so easy to share information with someone anywhere at anytime. But just because we are talking to someone, doesn’t mean we are talking with them. It’s this challenge that sits at the heart of an ever-widening divide between America and the rest of the world.

A recent international survey spearheaded by the Pew Research Center found that favorable ratings of the United States have decreased from 64 percent of people across all countries surveyed in 2016 to 49 percent this spring. The decline in regard for how much foreign nations hold America is especially pronounced among some of our closest allies in Europe and Asia, as well as neighboring Mexico and Canada. Those looking for an answer to rectify this crisis of confidence in American leadership, would be wise to look to the words of American educator Steven Covey, who said we must “seek to understand before you can be understood.”

In 1963, President Kennedy founded the “Arts in the Embassies” program, a public-private partnership between the U.S. State Department and more than 20,000 partners from museums, galleries, collectors and others that enable thousands of artists to show their art at U.S. embassies abroad. Every president and secretary of state has embraced this program since. The universal language of art has become an important part of American foreign policy and continues to play a leading role in strengthening ties between nations.

On September 11, 2001, shortly after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as America’s Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary, I was on my way to the airport to board a flight for Budapest when the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The car was turned around. That day my travel itinerary changed along with the norms that had come to define U.S. foreign policy for generations.

After my arrival in the Hungarian capital we set to work on establishing ties between our two nations. Enhanced security and safety concerns resulted in delayed approval to acquire American art. So instead of waiting to decorate the residence with American art, artists from Budapest were invited to loan their art to adorn the walls. That gesture, which sought to personify a communicative bond and respect for culture between two peoples, went a long way toward gaining the appreciation of the Hungarian government.

The artwork, which encapsulates creativity in the face of duress, allowed me to better understand the unique history of the Hungarian people. Together, our progress included newfound cooperation with security initiatives in the Global War on Terror; resolved commerce transparency issues; and the establishment of the first conference on human trafficking and the exploitation of workers, which was attended by neighboring Balkan States.

My return to the United States in 2003 and subsequent posting as the Chief of Protocol for the White House offered the opportunity to welcome foreign heads of state and educate a wide audience on Hungarian art. The collection, which is shared with my son Eric, spans more than 150 years, from just before the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the present. One of the largest collections outside of Hungary, it includes the works of the acknowledged masters of modernism, as well as artists of more modest reputations who never would have gotten the recognition they deserve if we had not been able to share their works with American universities and museums that have featured our collection.

In this time of complex communication and diminished respect for American ideals among our allies, 140 Twitter characters will only get us so far. My experience as an ambassador bears this eternal lesson: if you want to know a people, you need to take the time to learn about who they are and where they came from, their hopes and aspirations, their art and culture.

America’s Hostage Negotiation Strategy is Broken

June 26, 2017

Bill Richardson (Governor of New Mexico, 2003-2011; Secretary of Energy, 1998-2000; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, 1997-1998; U.S. Congressman from New Mexico, 1982-1996)

Cross posted from The Washington Post.

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Otto Warmbier was laid to rest June 22 by his loving family in their town outside of Cincinnati, nine days after he was brought home in a coma after 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea. The North Korean government described him as a prisoner of war, so by their own definition, his death is their absolute responsibility, pursuant to the Geneva Conventions. That the North Korean government kept him in an unresponsive state without proper medical assistance constitutes a crime in terms of international law and flouts common decency.

The blame is theirs. The lesson for us is that America’s hostage negotiation strategy is broken.

I’ve helped rescue hostages from around the world and from North Korea, specifically. In 1994, I negotiated the return of downed Army helicopter pilot from North Korea and the remains of his co-pilot. In 1996, I helped bring American Evan Hunziker back from North Korea. I, and the team at my center, worked for 15 months to try to gain Otto’s release, including a visit to Pyongyang in September.

To bring these cases to a resolution, we often work on three parallel tracks: identifying opportunities to create leverage; engaging directly with captors to ascertain what it might take to secure hostages’ release; and working with the families of those taken hostage, who often find themselves in need of guidance. Working on all three tracks remains viable, but Otto’s case shows that it’s time for a paradigm shift.

First, we have to recognize that time is no longer neutral. In past instances, all that mattered was working toward an outcome, no matter how long it might take. But urgency must be the new norm if we’re to have a chance at curtailing the physical and mental abuse that prisoners can face, particularly when dealing with unpredictable actor. In the year-plus since Otto was detained, Kim Jong Un contravened a litany of humanitarian norms regarding treatment of hostages. The regime still hasn’t provided a believable explanation for Otto’s coma, and why they failed to disclose his condition to the family or diplomatic proxies in the country.

But timing is only part of the problem. Previous hostage negotiations have had success largely because outside actors have been effective in pressuring their client states. Maybe North Korea doesn’t have an incentive to appease America, but China, which works with both countries and fears the collapse of the North Korean state, does. Otto’s case, though, underscores the reality that the final stages of negotiations between sovereign states often need to be undertaken by the parties themselves — here, the governments of the United States and North Korea.

Yet despite the clear need for governments to resolve these cases bilaterally, the U.S. has no clear policy on how to handle instances in which Americans are held as collateral by foreign governments. It’s not that the U.S. hasn’t tried to improve its overall approach. In the final years of his administration, President Barack Obama made a concerted effort to rethink how the government treats hostage cases, primarily in circumstances where Americans are held by terrorist organizations. The creation of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell was a step in the right direction. It’s meant to encourage agencies and departments to share relevant information among all participating actors in securing the release of prisoners held by terrorist groups, and exists to provide channels to keep families informed on the progress of their relatives’ cases.

But that’s not enough. Families who have engaged with the HRFC have expressed frustration at the lack of information-sharing — something the HRFC was ultimately supposed to fix. Other families who have hired private external negotiators have been stymied by strict rules regarding the sharing of information with outside parties working to create the conditions necessary for a deal to be reached.

Yet we know coordinated private diplomacy is often critical. Unconstrained by traditional diplomatic choreography, private diplomacy leverages preexisting personal relations and trust that can lead to the sharing of information and creative flexibility, something with which government struggles. To try to bring Otto home, for example, representatives from my center met more than 20 times with North Korean officials. The information gathered was critical. Coordinating and sharing these efforts between government and private diplomacy can unleash a set of tools largely ignored, and in some cases eschewed, to date. For example, a small gesture of recognition — a note delivered privately — from the United States indicating that it would see Otto’s release as a humanitarian gesture, could have helped bring him home earlier: private diplomacy working hand-in-hand with government.

Yet for all the shortcomings of U.S. hostage policy, President Trump has yielded one clear success with the release of Aya Hijazi, who was held by the Egyptian government until shortly after the president’s White House meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Trump deserves credit here, but his administration can’t rely on this sort of leader-to-leader diplomacy as a primary approach, as it would incentivize governments to take Americans captive, not to mention forcing the president to shift focus from important geostrategic issues.

To secure the release of the other three U.S. citizens being held in North Korea, Joshua Holt in Venezuela, Siamak Namazi in Iran and Austin Tice in Syria, to name a few, the administration must first treat these cases with urgency rather than patience, and second, convene a contact group, including private diplomacy actors across the political and private spectrums, to identify case-by-case strategies and levers. Personal relations are assets and they do not exclusively lie inside one administration.

Time to Negotiate with North Korea

June 23, 2017

Thomas Graham, Jr. (Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 1994-1997)

Cross posted from the June 23, 2017 edition of U.S. News and World Report

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The great Cold Warrior and international negotiator Ambassador Paul Nitze once said to me “Whenever I enter one of these negotiations (U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations) I try to imagine the narrow strip where both sides can stand comfortably. Then I try to steer U.S. policy toward that place.” That is a good construct for important and sensitive negotiation with an adversary. And it could work with North Korea as well. Whatever one thinks of North Korea, with their horrible record of human rights and disregard for human life, they do have interests, which they acknowledge, and they will negotiate if approached correctly and very carefully.

North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a dangerous state with a long track record of being willing to sell anything to anyone for its own benefit, and a history of state terrorism against South Korea. As such, it poses a double danger. First, the DPRK could sell nuclear weapons to Iran or to terrorist organizations, or it could transfer bomb production technology as it did to Syria during 2005-2007. Second, a nuclear-armed North Korea, with ballistic missiles currently capable of reaching targets throughout Northeast Asia and likely capable of reaching the United States within a few years, is a grave threat to South Korea, Japan and America.

However, Pyongyang’s policy over the years has also included a certain realpolitik and willingness to negotiate. The North Korean regime, which has few allies in the international sphere and grapples with crippling domestic problems, is above all interested in survival, economic benefits and a diplomatic relationship with the United States. Military action against North Korea is not an attractive option; the huge North Korean artillery and rocket forces amassed along the Korean Demilitarized Zone pose a serious threat to Seoul that is less than twenty miles away; and in recent years, uncertainty has developed about what the DPRK might do with its nuclear weapons. Diplomacy is the only practical option.

Some say that the North Koreans are irrational but the track record does not necessarily bear this out. The United States utterly crushed North Korea during the Korean War but 64 years have passed since the end of that conflict, and the Kim family remains in control. The North Koreans have a weak hand and they have played it with skill. Their objectives have always been clear: survival, economic benefits and a relationship with the United States. In the past, to the extent the U.S. was prepared to pay this price, agreement with the DPRK was possible. Playing on this the Clinton administration made real progress: the DPRK nuclear program was essentially shut down – not eliminated but shut down – and an agreement ending their ballistic missile program was close.

For its own purposes, the Bush administration decided to abandon all the Clinton progress, adopt a confrontational position toward North Korea and include North Korea in the president’s axis of evil speech in early 2002. Later that year, just before North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, a U.S. delegation was in Pyongyang. There, among others, the U.S. delegation met with First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Sok-ju who accused the United States of singling out North Korea for nuclear attack and, among other memorable statements, said “We are part of the axis of evil, and you are gentlemen. That is our relationship. We cannot discuss matters like gentlemen. If we disarm ourselves because of U.S. pressure, then we will become like Yugoslavia or Afghanistan’s Taliban to be beaten to death.”

The hardline was back. Over the next 15 years arms limitation was largely abandoned. North Korea conducted five nuclear weapon tests and many ballistic missile tests. The DPRK has become a direct threat to the United States. And the new ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, had raised the stakes. Arguably, negotiation is still possible but now in addition to survival, economic benefits and a relationship with the United States, the DPRK wants to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state, something the United States cannot and should not do.

However, if catastrophe at least at some level is to be avoided, negotiations have to be attempted. The North Koreans likely will be open to making an agreement that they perceive to be in their interest. The trick will be to find the terms of such an agreement that would also be in the interest of the United States. The alternatives are not attractive. Leon Sigal, a long-time, non-government expert on North Korea has suggested an approach of seeking a temporary suspension of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program while both sides discuss reciprocal steps that the U.S. could consider in order to address North Korea’s security concerns. There may be interest in this in North Korea. This could be a place to start.