Commentary Magazine


Topic: arms control

On the Rhetoric of the United Nations and the United States

Sitting in the back of the room as the UN’s member states negotiate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a disorientating experience. That’s partly because it’s not a negotiation as Americans understand the term: it’s a series of more or less unconnected national interventions on particular points of interest, while the actual drafting happens out of sight. It’s also because Iran and North Korea are treated with at least as much formal respect as the United States and South Korea. Before last summer’s ATT negotiations, I had naively expected that the North Korean diplomats, for example, would be just a touch embarrassed to be representing their regime, and that as a result they would try to fade into background. On the contrary–it’s the U.S. that intervenes as little as possible, while the totalitarians speak up loud, proud, and often.

But it’s mostly because of the sleep-inducing effect of UN-style rhetoric, which only a few nations have failed to master. Phrases like “colonial and alien domination” (meaning, of course, Israel and the United States), “right of resistance” (meaning Palestinian and Islamist terrorism), “balanced and objective criteria” (meaning that nothing should inconvenience human rights abusers), “open and inclusive negotiations” (meaning that the conference has to work entirely in plenary, because Iran and the other dictatorships do not want anything happening out of their sight), and the “disproportionate effect of armed violence on women, children, the elderly, and the disabled” (meaning that the speaker is very eager to sound progressive, either because they are Norway or because they are speaking on behalf of a Third World autocracy) roll off tongue after tongue.

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Sitting in the back of the room as the UN’s member states negotiate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a disorientating experience. That’s partly because it’s not a negotiation as Americans understand the term: it’s a series of more or less unconnected national interventions on particular points of interest, while the actual drafting happens out of sight. It’s also because Iran and North Korea are treated with at least as much formal respect as the United States and South Korea. Before last summer’s ATT negotiations, I had naively expected that the North Korean diplomats, for example, would be just a touch embarrassed to be representing their regime, and that as a result they would try to fade into background. On the contrary–it’s the U.S. that intervenes as little as possible, while the totalitarians speak up loud, proud, and often.

But it’s mostly because of the sleep-inducing effect of UN-style rhetoric, which only a few nations have failed to master. Phrases like “colonial and alien domination” (meaning, of course, Israel and the United States), “right of resistance” (meaning Palestinian and Islamist terrorism), “balanced and objective criteria” (meaning that nothing should inconvenience human rights abusers), “open and inclusive negotiations” (meaning that the conference has to work entirely in plenary, because Iran and the other dictatorships do not want anything happening out of their sight), and the “disproportionate effect of armed violence on women, children, the elderly, and the disabled” (meaning that the speaker is very eager to sound progressive, either because they are Norway or because they are speaking on behalf of a Third World autocracy) roll off tongue after tongue.

It’s disconcerting that the dictatorial nations are among the most effective dispellers of this nearly impenetrable fog of code words. UN press releases are surprisingly good at capturing the substance of what is said, but they cannot capture discordant tones. That is because every speaker gets a summary of about the same length, which diminishes the impact of the longer and more dictatorial rants. (Syria clearly does the best crazy act–if act it is–in the room, though Algeria also has much to be proud of in this regard.) But it also diminishes the impact of plain speaking, even when it’s hypocritical. When Venezuela spoke yesterday morning, for example, it disconcertingly pointed out that the draft ATT would prevent a nation under massive foreign attack from importing arms if there was a likelihood that the victim nation would commit any human rights violations in the course of defending itself. It was the sharpest point made in the debate, and Liechtenstein’s response–which echoed David Bosco’s foolish argument that I summarized on Monday–only made the democracies look even more woolly-headed.

Curiously, the other nation that does not use the UN style is the United States. When the U.S. delegation–normally, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman–speaks, it is short and to the point. There are no code words, and while Countryman is far from discourteous, U.S. statements conspicuously lack the flowers and genuflections of many other delegations. The U.S. approach conveys the attitude that the purpose of negotiations is actually to negotiate something, and that the purpose of speech is to say something that will move the negotiations forward. It’s the mentality of a very competent engineer, or of a nation with the presentational style of Jack Webb: just the facts, ma’am. True, the U.S. doesn’t use code words partly because at the UN those code words stand for ideas of which it profoundly disapproves. But it’s more than that.

At bottom, I’m convinced, the U.S. still retains something of its founding ambivalence toward the stylistic formalities of professional diplomacy, which is as much about concealing meaning as revealing it. American diplomacy, like America itself, is exceptional and individualistic, unwilling to adopt the conventions that others find simple and convenient. That is who we are, and it is a good thing–but only up to a point, because the engineer’s mentality can all too easily lead to the belief that everything can be fixed through negotiations, if only you try hard enough. The example of our nuclear negotiations with Iran should be enough to dispel that belief, but national myths die very hard. We are far too slow to recognize that for many nations, the point of negotiations is to spend a pleasant few weeks in New York, to be ranked as an equal to the U.S., to waste time, or just to show up.

No one believes in American exceptionalism more than I do, but inherent in exceptionalism, after all, is recognizing that the other guy may have an utterly different reason for sitting down at the table than you do. Right now, we have the worst of both worlds: an administration that doesn’t believe in exceptionalism, and a diplomacy that too often embodies exceptionalism’s most unreflective and self-absorbed aspects. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here at the United Nations listening to Syria rant about the need to control the supply of arms to terrorists.

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Missing the Point On Arms Control

Over the last several weeks, Rose Gottemoeller, the Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, has given speeches in Stockholm and Helsinki that, while focusing on Europe, set out the administration’s broader philosophy on arms control and verification.

This philosophy is profoundly misguided. It proceeds from the erroneous premise that arms control increases U.S. security by reducing arms all around, including (or perhaps especially) on the U.S. side. That premise, in turn, rests on the assumption that the world will be safer if democracies are no better armed than autocracies, and that the problems of security derive from arms, not from the nature of the regime that has them. In reality, arms control, even at its best, aims only at the symptoms of the problem — which is political — and it can easily damage U.S. security by reducing our ability to protect and defend ourselves and our allies.

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Over the last several weeks, Rose Gottemoeller, the Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, has given speeches in Stockholm and Helsinki that, while focusing on Europe, set out the administration’s broader philosophy on arms control and verification.

This philosophy is profoundly misguided. It proceeds from the erroneous premise that arms control increases U.S. security by reducing arms all around, including (or perhaps especially) on the U.S. side. That premise, in turn, rests on the assumption that the world will be safer if democracies are no better armed than autocracies, and that the problems of security derive from arms, not from the nature of the regime that has them. In reality, arms control, even at its best, aims only at the symptoms of the problem — which is political — and it can easily damage U.S. security by reducing our ability to protect and defend ourselves and our allies.

Gottemoeller claims that, in the New START Resolution of Ratification, the Senate “placed a priority on seeking to initiate new negotiations with the Russians on nonstrategic nuclear weapons.” As a result, she says, NATO “has indicated that it is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for nonstrategic nuclear weapons . . . in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia.” She implies that the Senate called for reductions in the U.S. tactical stockpile. It did not. The Resolution calls for “an agreement . . . that would address the disparity between the tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles of the Russian Federation and of the United States.”

In other words, the Senate wanted an agreement that would reduce Russian stockpiles, not U.S. inventories. This revealing misstatement demonstrates just how eager the administration is to press ahead with further negotiations, even after Russia in 2007 suspended adherence to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. The U.S. did not acknowledge this breach until 2011, and even today, the U.S. continues to implement the Treaty voluntarily, except for the provisions that pertain to Russia specifically.

That raises the broader problem of compliance and verification, which Gottemoeller addressed in Helsinki. This was avowedly a “think piece,” and it is not inherently bad for officials to think outside the box. But in this case, the administration needs — as my colleague Baker Spring implies in a recent review of its unfocused approach to compliance — to get back in the box and pull the lid on tight. Gottemoeller’s remarks focused on the idea that arms control agreements could be verified by the public, either via social networks or distributed sensors in smartphones.

It is hard to believe that Gottemoeller has thought this through. What she is proposing is the application of the same “civil society verification” model to arms control that has distorted human rights treaties and turned them into sticks that NGOs and dictatorships use to beat up the U.S. In the arms control realm, this approach would lead to even more vigorous repression in totalitarian societies. It would also provide a ready-made justification of leaks from the U.S. — paging Bradley Manning — on the ground that the leaker was participating in a public verification exercise. It amounts to a partial outsourcing of verification, which, “when necessary,” can be partially funded by governments but where many costs will be born by others.

And that is what is most troubling of all about Gottemoeller’s remarks: they are shot through with remarks about budgetary problems. Implementation of the Open Skies Treaty is subject to “budgetary constraints.” Verification of the Vienna Document must not “impose unreasonable expenses.” Finally — and worst of all — arms control can help the U.S. “to spend our stretched defense budgets wisely.” Wrong! Arms control has no necessary connection to defense spending, because arms control addresses systems or regions, whereas the defense budget must take all security challenges into account. And if the U.S. is unwilling to spend the money necessary to verify arms control agreements, it should not enter into those agreements in the first place, because without verification, the limits they place on the U.S. run the risk of being completely one-sided.

Gottemoeller’s remarks demonstrate that the administration: is more interested in getting treaties than in verifying them; understands arms control as, in part, an exercise in the control of U.S. defense spending; and views U.S. and allied armaments as part of the security problem to be addressed via these treaties. These are all fundamental errors. Congress should demand a more serious treatment of U.S. arms control and verification efforts. It is obvious that this Administration has no intention of providing one on its own.

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