America Has An Inherent Disadvantage In Negotiations Due To Term Limits
Published on July 20, 2018
During the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump repeatedly denounced as "bad deals," many of the international agreements that previous U.S. administrations had concluded. As part of his "America First" platform, President Trump promised to terminate United States participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Paris Climate Accord, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal). He also pledged that if elected, he and his team would negotiate future agreements that better served America's national interests.
President Trump's views are not without merit. In the JCPOA, Iran committed to incomplete and partially-verifiable denuclearization, not the complete and verifiable denuclearization promised to the American people and the world. Meanwhile, American negotiators agreed that Iran could maintain its ballistic missile program and to commercial commitments that largely benefited European, Russian, and Chinese business competitors and the Iranian clerical regime's guardians, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A direct payment of cash proceeds under the deal financed the IRGC's military activities in Syria in support of the Assad regime. When the deal was completed, President Obama and Secretary Kerry received the plaudits of their sycophantic press supporters, but the safety of America and its allies and partners in the Middle East was substantially diminished.
Previously, the Obama administration had concluded an agreement with Russia and Syria for the latter to give up all its chemical weapons. When it was allegedly finalized, a fawning world media showered praise on President and Secretary Kerry, but as we know now, the Syrians did not surrender all their chemical weapons.
When President Trump walked away from the TPP, it was already dead on arrival in Congress because President Obama's negotiators had both made commitments and failed to gain concessions that cost him the support of key Members of the House of Representatives. Likewise, in the Paris Accord, the Obama administration agreed that the United States bear the largest economic costs for reducing atmospheric carbon levels, but because the Paris Accord was an administrative agreement, Congress had no say in its content.
Previous administrations have also fallen short in their negotiations. Congress forced the renegotiation of the George W. Bush Administration's Colombia and Korea Free Trade Agreements, and the Clinton Administration has been heavily criticized for its concluding the China WTO accession on disadvantageous terms. However, the magnitude of this "own goal" is misunderstood. After completing an initial bilateral accession agreement with China, team Clinton reopened negotiations, but China leveraged an improved position internationally to shift the final balance of concessions in China's favor.
In each of these instances, along with numerous others, the "time trap" of the American political cycle is a primary culprit. Constitutionally, the president serves for four or eight years, and on average, the politically-appointed, Senate-confirmed (PAS) officials who tend to lead major international negotiations serve three-four years. Our negotiating opponents, many of whom are dictatorships or monarchies with decades-long time horizons, are well aware of the American political cycle. Like carpet sellers who depend on the tourist trade, America's negotiating opponents know that time is on their side. If they wait long enough, the lure of legacy will bring America's politically-appointed decision-makers to close a deal on terms that are less advantageous to the United States, just as tourists overpay for the carpets they buy.
Avoiding the "time trap" requires presidents and political appointees to be self-disciplined and understand a characteristic of public service that professional diplomats, military officers, intelligence officers, and trade negotiators learn through experience – that in some jobs one begins a project that another will finish, in other positions, one moves the project closer to the finish line, but still hands it over to a successor, and once in a while, one actually completes a project. Delegating major negotiations to the professionals who have the experience, knowledge, and patience to achieve better outcomes could mitigate the "time trap" disadvantage. In addition, career professionals, with their longer term perspectives, can coordinate across the entire U.S. government to implement policies and programs that create pressures and incentives that alter negotiating opponents' time perceptions.
The current administration has begun critically important negotiations with North Korea to achieve that country's complete and verifiable denuclearization. If achieved, such a deal would significantly decrease the risk of nuclear war. North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Un, is 35 years old, and his predecessors managed to leverage concessions from Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, while keeping North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The current U.S. Administration has two and a half years before it comes to an end. Only time will tell if it can improve on its predecessors' records.