From Cuba to Korea, from Iran to Russia and Palestine, there is a long history of failed negotiations and wasted time. The negotiations are all different, but a clear pattern establishes the reason why all of them fail.
In each case, US negotiations fail because the interlocutor nation cannot trust that the US really wants to change the foundational hostility in the relationship. In each case, the US demands that the other country makes the concessions the US demands without ever offering to make the core concessions the other country desires. So, negotiations never grow beyond minor negotiations over specific issues because the U.S. consistently breaks its promise that those incremental, trust building negotiations will lead to more substantial ones.
José Luis Padrón, Castro’s representative, once erupted in frustration, "We have not dealt with the embargo. . . . For us it is totally unacceptable for the United States to ask for a constructive and positive position from us on problems vital to its interests, and for it to not respond at all with any constructive gesture on the points Cuba considers vital."
According to William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, in their book Back Channel to Cuba, the Cubans constantly stressed the need for the embargo to be lifted before other issues could be resolved. "With the blockade in place," one Cuban negotiator complained, "no aspects of normalizing relations could be discussed. Lawrence Eagleburger, Kissinger’s deputy, frustratingly replied that for the US, "this problem is not the most important in our foreign policy."
The US always wanted to negotiate issues of importance to them without putting on the table the foundational issue that was the heart of the issue for Cuba: "We cannot negotiate under the blockade," the Cuban negotiators insisted. Castro often reminded the US that Cuba cannot be expected to negotiate with "a dagger at our throats." Iranian negotiators would later make the same point in the same words. Castro was not inflexible. He, at one point, asked only for the US to show "a gesture" by lifting just the embargo on food and medicine. At times, Cuba even softened its position by declaring that lifting the embargo didn’t have to be a precondition to resolving other issues, that its complete lifting could come at the end.
The Cuban negotiations got stuck in the US strategy of demanding key concessions from their interlocutor in exchange for minor US concessions that promised to lead to core concessions but never did. Finally, the promise was no longer believed.
Historically, Iran has wanted four things from the US. Before the revolution, Iran wanted to nationalize their oil industry. After the revolution, they wanted security guarantees, and end to international isolation and respect for their role in the region, and the right to enrich uranium for nuclear energy. While putting its own demands on the table, the US never seriously put Iran’s demands on the table.
Time after time, the US either accepted Iranian concessions while either not offering concessions on Iran’s needs or promising to offer them and then breaking that promise.
Iranian president Rafsanjani attempted to show that accepting Iran as a regional actor could be beneficial. He attempted to break out of international isolation by exerting Iran’s regional influence to help win the release of American hostages in Lebanon. President H.W. Bush promised that, in return, Iran’s help would “be long remembered” and that “goodwill begets goodwill.” But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Instead, Bush betrayed Rafsanjani: the Americans sent word that Rafsanjani should expect no American reciprocation. Iran addressed US needs; the US pulled Iranian needs back off the table.
Rafsanjani would try once more to end American isolation of Iran by addressing American needs. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he rejected Iraqi pleas for help while allowing the US to use Iranian airspace. The US pocketed the Iranian concession and then further isolated them by shutting them out of the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid conference: nearly every other affected nation was welcomed.
The next Iranian president would experience the same frustration and futility. He accepted the two state solution, aided the US against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and played what Parsi called a crucial role in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government. President George W. Bush offered membership in the Axis of Evil in return, only further threatening Iran’s safety and isolation. The US welcomed Iranian concessions while closing the door on Iranian requests for concessions.
The negotiations script was the same in pre-revolution Iran. Iran’s sole demand was control of its own oil, and control of its own oil was the one thing the US and Britain refused to put on the table. In Oil Crisis in Iran, Ervand Abrahamian explains that the US would cynically offer only nationalization in which "actual ‘control’ of the oil industry . . . would remain firmly in the hands of" the US and Britain. The British described it as "accepting the pretense and the ‘façade’ of nationalization while retaining effective control."
In the most recent incarnation of the struggle, oil was replaced with uranium and nuclear energy. Once again, while the US demanded that Iran meet every US concession, the one Iranian concession, the ability to exercise its legal right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, was the one concession the US swore would never be on the table.
As Cuba had demanded that ending the embargo and restarting diplomatic relations had to be on the table, so Iran had always insisted that negotiations were impossible without the right to enrich being included. But those reasonable demands went against the consistent US policy of demanding that the interlocutor nation make concessions to US needs without ever offering to make concessions to their needs.
A brief break with history during the Obama administration demonstrated clearly that it was precisely this American negotiating strategy that was responsible for a history of failed American negotiations. It was the singular insight and achievement of the Obama administration that quid pro quo concessions that demanded major concessions from the interlocutor nation while offering only minor concessions that never addressed the heart of the other country’s concerns led only to dead ends. In both Cuba and Iran, Obama, for the first time, put the other county’s concerns on the table. And for a brief moment, before Trump and Biden put America back on the old doomed path, it worked.
When discussion were opened with Cuba, according to LeoGrande and Kornbluh, Obama had "planned from the start that restoring official diplomatic relations would be part of the final deal." Similarly, in 2003, Obama signaled that the US would accept Iran’s enrichment of uranium. In Losing an Enemy, Iran expert Trita Parsi says that Obama had always planned on playing that card: he had always planned to "relinquish zero enrichment . . . once Iran had accepted restrictions to its program." But now, for the first time, Obama offered to "play the enrichment card upfront" and not at the end.
Those brief flickers of success have been snuffed by Trump and Biden. One again, Biden is backing the Cuban embargo at the UN and Cuba is back on the state sponsors of terrorism list and back out of diplomatic relations. The same is true in Iran where Biden has returned to the same pattern of demanding Iranian concessions while refusing concessions on Iran’s core concerns. The US wants Iran to meet its demand of negotiating missile development and regional activities while refusing to address Iran’s core concern by providing a guarantee that the US will not abandon the nuclear agreement again and return to sanctions and isolation.
The template for successful negotiations with North Korea have always been clear. The US wants North Korea to shut down its nuclear program, and North Korea wants the US to guarantee that it will stop threatening North Korea’s security.
After a history of carpet bombing, chemicals, US nuclear missiles in South Korea, threats of "fire and fury like the world has never seen", inclusion in the Axis of Evil and being named a country upon which the US should be prepared to drop a nuclear bomb, North Korea asks that a guarantee of its security be included on the table. But it’s not. The US consistently demands complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program as a condition of – not as a conclusion of – any negotiations.
The claim is constantly repeated that North Korea is unwilling to negotiate away their nuclear program. What is never said, though, is that that is not what they have ever said. Like Cuba and Iran, North Korea is unwilling, with a dagger at their throats, to negotiate its nuclear program away when US concessions for their key needs are not on the table.
North Korea has always structured its reluctance to negotiate away its nuclear program as a conditional: it is conditional on the US putting the concession that North Korea needs on the table.
Joel S. Wit, who worked on the Agreed Framework with North Korea and who was one of a very few people to take part in informal meetings with North Korean officials in 2013, says that Kim Jong UN always intended North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a deterrent against American aggression. Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho explained to the UN that its nuclear program is "to all intents and purposes, a war deterrent for putting an end to nuclear threat of the US and for preventing its military invasion, and our ultimate goal is to establish the balance of power with the US."
It has always been made clear that North Korea would trade its nuclear weapons for a guarantee of US nonaggression. As early as June of 2013, North Korea’s National Defense Commission declared that it was willing to negotiate denuclearization. The National Defense Commission is chaired by Kim Jong UN. As early as 2013, the formula was clear: North Korea would erase its nuclear weapons program in exchange for US guarantees that it would cease its “hostile policy” of political, economic and security threats.
In 2017, Kim In-Ryong put it this way to UN Secretary-General António Guterres: "As long as the US hostile policy and nuclear threat continue, the DPRK, no matter who may say what, will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table." Ju Yong Chol, a North Korean diplomat, expressed the formulation exactly the same way. RI said "We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table. . . . unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the US against the D.P.R.K. are fundamentally eliminated." Most importantly, Kim Jong UN, himself, has also expressed this conditional formulation. Kim has stated that "Our final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the US and make the US rulers dare not talk about military options."
North Korea has experienced the same frustrating futility as Cuba and Iran. Negotiations have failed because the US has demanded that they make the concessions the US requires while concessions North Korea requires are off the table.
Talks with the Palestinians have gone nowhere because of the same template. The Palestinians have been asked to make concessions on US/Israeli demands with only nebulous, illusory and unfulfilled promises that their core demands will be addressed later. As has always been the case in the failing US history of negotiations, the US demands concession be made while refusing to negotiate concessions the other nation needs. The Palestinians have been asked to grant several concessions with no hope of security or statehood.
Negotiations had no chance of succeeding because Palestinian needs and perspectives were never included in the negotiations. In Mythologies Without End, Jerome Slater says, "Indeed, that the US government’s ‘mediation’ was indeed often one-sided was later admitted by Aaron David Miller, who wrote that the US brought "a clear Pro-Israel orientation to our peace process planning. . . . In truth, not a single senior-level official involved with the negotiations was willing or able to present, let alone fight for, the Arab or Palestinian perspective."
Negotiations with Russia and Ukraine have been self-defeating for the same reason. The US has demanded its concerns be conceded by Russia withdrawing from Crimea while refusing to address Russian concerns over the US coup in Ukraine or NATO seductions of Ukraine: the familiar pattern.
Though the world remembers that the Ukraine crisis began with President Viktor Yanukovych choosing an economic alliance with Russia over the one offered by the European Union, the world forgets – if it ever recognized – that the European package was no benign economic package: it was a security threat to Russia.
According to the late Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton, Stephen Cohen, the European Union proposal also "included ‘security policy’ provisions . . . that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO." The provisions compelled Ukraine to "adhere to Europe’s ‘military and security’ policies." Article 4 of the agreement states that the Agreement will "promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area." Article 7 speaks of the convergence of security and defense, and Article 10 says that "the parties shall explore the potential of military and technological cooperation."
NATO had spent the last two decades gobbling up Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia. It was encroaching on Montenegro and, most crucially, Georgia and now the huge step into Ukraine. As Russia tried again to put its security concerns on the table, American negotiations were structured around its demand of unilateral Russian handing over of Crimea and Ukraine. That is, once again, negotiations embraced US concerns while keeping Russian concerns off the table: while negotiating its security, Russia had to concede the most serious threat to is security.
From each of these examples, a pattern emerges. US negotiations always fail because, while the interlocutor is compelled to make concessions on US needs, they cannot trust that the US will make reciprocal concessions on their core needs. When, for a brief moment, America abandoned that historical strategy, they completed two important negotiations with Cuba and Iran; when Trump and Biden returned to that historical strategy, they dropped those two important agreements. American negotiations have always failed because the interlocutor nation cannot give away concessions to American demands because they cannot trust that America will make concession on their core demands.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.