Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

The Case for Secret Diplomacy

| Apr. 26, 2018

Following revelations that CIA Director Mike Pompeo traveled secretly to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the planned summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, some congressional leaders cried foul. But secret diplomacy has long been one of the most effective tools in the US foreign-policy kit.

CAMBRIDGE – When New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez announced that he will oppose Mike Pompeo’s nomination to US Secretary of State, he explained that he would do so because Pompeo, currently Director of the CIA, had failed to disclose that he had traveled to North Korea over Easter weekend as President Donald Trump’s envoy.

For Menendez, the audacity and secrecy of the Trump administration’s preparations for a planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was unacceptable. “Now I don’t expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open,” Menendez said in a recent speech, “but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be Secretary of State, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit. I believe our nation’s top diplomat must be forthright.”

The US constitution assigns senators the responsibility to confirm, by majority vote, the president’s cabinet nominees. America’s founders sought to ensure that individuals serving in high positions of public trust would be well qualified, not just in the judgment of a single individual, but after thoughtful review by an independently elected Senate.

In exercising their constitutional duty, senators should consider carefully their criteria for providing what the constitution calls “advice and consent.” There are many good reasons why senators may decide to support or oppose Pompeo’s nomination. But Pompeo’s withholding of the fact that he was engaged in secret diplomacy is not one of them.

To be sure, despite being a mainstay of US foreign policy, secret diplomacy has always had its critics. Some argue that it is a type of deception that undermines the transparency and accountability on which American democracy is based. Others do not oppose secret diplomacy per se, but they believe that maintaining a reasonable degree of democratic accountability requires that a small subset of congressional leaders be informed. In criticizing Pompeo for failing to be “forthright” even with the “committee leadership,” Menendez expressed both of these concerns.

Yet the history of secret diplomacy, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, clearly illustrates its benefits. The most important diplomatic breakthrough of the Cold War, the opening to China, began with secret negotiations between Henry Kissinger, then President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Kissinger’s top-secret trip to Beijing in 1971 laid the groundwork for Nixon’s historic visit the following year. And the warming of Sino-US relations helped widen divisions between China and America’s Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union.

Likewise, President Barack Obama’s signature diplomatic achievement, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, could not have been achieved without secret talks. In March 2013, Obama sent two senior State Department officials, William J. Burns and Jake Sullivan, to begin secret conversations with the Iranians in Oman. Given that diplomatic relations between the two countries had been severed for more than 30 years, and that each country was radioactive in the domestic politics of the other, holding preliminary negotiations in public would have been a non-starter.

Soon enough, the secret conversations led US officials to conclude that the Iranians were serious about entering into formal talks. In secret, US and Iranian negotiators worked on an outline of what would ultimately become the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The JCPOA blocked all of Iran’s major pathways to becoming a nuclear power, by preventing the country from reprocessing plutonium or enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. It also eliminated two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges and 98% of its stockpile of enriched uranium; and it established the most intrusive verification and inspection regime ever negotiated.

But as difficult as the talks with Iran were, negotiating with Kim’s Hermit Kingdom will be harder still. The United States and North Korea are technically still at war, because a formal peace treaty has not been concluded since the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended with a ceasefire and an armistice. Moreover, every past denuclearization agreement between the two countries has collapsed, and, since Trump took office, he and Kim have been lobbing insults and threats at each other. In this context, sending a secret envoy to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for productive negotiations is precisely what the US should be doing.

Even so, there is still the question of why that envoy would not inform Senate foreign-policy leaders of his work, especially when he is seeking to become America’s chief diplomat. One answer is that the Trump administration probably believes that informing Congress would make the secret negotiations no longer a secret. During the past year’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, Congress has leaked like a sieve, and many congressional Democrats have made it clear that they will “resist” Trump at every turn. Thus, it was reasonable for Pompeo to fear that knowledge of his secret talks would be leaked in an effort to undermine the summit and deny the administration a potential political victory.

Transparency and accountability are still important American norms. But the history of US diplomacy has shown that secrecy often is essential for success. And besides, the constitution gives the president wide latitude in foreign policy. That is why even some of Menendez’s Democratic colleagues, who may oppose Pompeo on policy grounds, cheered the news of his visit to North Korea. As Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy put it, “I’ll just be honest with you, I’m glad there is someone at a high level in the Trump administration talking to the North Koreans about what may be the parameters of this meeting.”

Murphy is right. There are valid reasons to oppose a nominee for Secretary of State. But a failure to disclose secret preparatory talks for the most important presidential summit of the century is not one of them.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“The Case for Secret Diplomacy.” Project Syndicate, April 26, 2018.