The US debacle in Afghanistan has raised questions about whether the US will honor its commitments. My experience in the Foreign Service showed that the US often does not honor its commitments, about small things and large things. I experienced this during my assignments in Poland and Italy.
Hillary Clinton on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria
On Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program, Hillary Clinton complained about how the US was failing to honor its promises under Trump. This is true. I am disappointed that Trump is not honoring the Iran nuclear agreement in full without complaint as long as there is no indication that Iran is violating its terms. The fact that Iran may be doing some things we dislike, is a point for discussion, but not reason to invalidate a working agreement that is reducing the threat of nuclear war. I also think it was unwise for the US to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement. It’s purpose was to try to forge a closer agreement between the US and Asian countries neighboring China in order to offset China’s dominance in the region. Withdrawing probably strengthens China’s hand.
Nevertheless, failing to honor international agreements is nothing new for the US. It usually happens when administrations change and a new party takes over the White House, which is the case with Trump. I personally experienced three occasions when the US failed to honor its agreements, and I was not happy to be representing the US when it did.
Brazilian Nuclear Reactor
After I had served in Sao Paulo, Brazil, issuing visas in the 1970s, I was assigned to the Brazil desk as a junior officer. Before I arrived on the desk, Westinghouse had signed an agreement with Brazil to build a commercial nuclear power reactor for about one billion dollars. There was no legal objection to the sale. Later, however, Senator John Glenn (the former astronaut) sponsored and passed a bill saying the sale could not take place unless Brazil imposed full scope nuclear safeguards required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). At that time Brazil adamantly refused to join or comply with the NPT, because it claimed the NPT was unfairly discriminatory between nuclear powers, like the US, and non-nuclear states, like Brazil. As a result, Westinghouse had sold much equipment to Brazil, and much of the reactor was constructed, but the Glenn amendment meant that the US could not sell the uranium fuel to run the reactor.
In its obituary of Senator Glenn, the New Yorker said:
Glenn was a good legislator, in the end, more comfortable operating the machinery of government than he was selling it. His greatest success came in 1978, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, a bill that was designed by one of his top aides, Leonard Weiss, became law. The act provided a framework for nations that were not bound by international treaties—India, Brazil, South Africa—to safely acquire nuclear-energy technology.
In the end, Brazil was able to acquire uranium fuel from Europe, but the deal with Westinghouse, which could have included several more reactors, was terminated. In addition Brazil was so offended that it signed a big deal with Germany to get the technology to produce its own reactor fuel, which also would have given it the ability to produce enriched uranium for a bomb. Whether by design or not, the German enrichment system never worked properly, and Brazil poured a lot of money into a useless technology.
More recently, Brazil joined the NPT in 1998; so, Sen. Glenn was ultimately successful in getting Brazil into the nonproliferation regime, but by imposing new terms on the Westinghouse sale after it was signed, he created bad blood between the US and Brazil for years.
Maria Skłodowska Curie Fund
When I was assigned to American Embassy in Warsaw in the 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, one of my main duties was oversight of the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund, which the US had just signed agreeing to cooperate with Poland to fund joint US-Polish scientific projects for five years. The US funded two years of cooperation for $2 million each year, matched by the Poles. After two years, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich won control of the House and refused to approve any more funds for the remaining three years. The Poles wanted very much to continue the cooperation and offered to match any level of US funding, but the US refused to commit any money.
My predecessor had not funded any projects. The only expenses had been for two meetings to discuss cooperation, one in the US and one in Poland. Counting on the five year agreement, I had approved cooperative projects using all the money that had been appropriated so far. I was blindsided by the decision not to fund the program. One of the meetings I remember with the most disappointment was a meeting with the head of the Americas Department of the Foreign Ministry (who usually spoke to the Ambassador, not me) in which he harshly criticized the US (and me) for being dishonorable. However the reason he met with me was that more than anything, Poland wanted to be part of NATO as a protection against Russia, and it did not want the funding dispute to interfere with its potential NATO membership. But I still remember sitting in his office and being very embarrassed for my country and myself.
North Korea and KEDO
I left Warsaw and went to Rome at the request of the State Department because Italy was taking over the Presidency of the European Union, which meant double the work for Embassy Rome, just as the Science Counselor there was leaving because of some personnel problem. One of the issues I was responsible for was the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, which had been created as part of an agreement to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. In return, the KEDO group which included Japan and South Korea, would build two light water power reactors for North Korea, which would not provide material that could be used in bombs. While the reactors were being built, they would supply North Korea with heavy fuel oil to produce electricity in conventional power plants. The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training has just posted an oral history by Ambassador Stephen Bosworth describing his problems as head of KEDO. In this interview, he describes how because of the change in administrations the US effort to fulfil the agreement was hobbled.
Fuel deliveries were proceeding. We never had enough money for that either. The political reality is that within about a week after the U.S. and North Korea signed this agreement, the Republicans gained control of the U.S. Congress, and the conservative branch of the Republican Party hated this agreement because it was seen as basically submitting to North Korea and its forces. So, there was a strong determination from the beginning to kill this plan.
One of the efforts Bosworth made was to try to persuade the European Union to put uf some of the funds which the Republicans were refusing to supply. As Science Counselor I had the job of asking the Europeans to give us money so that we could meet our obligations. Our main argument was that the world would be safer without North Korean atomic bombs. However, the argument looked pretty weak if it didn’t persuade our own Congress to meet the terms of the agreement. Coming on the heels of the US failure to fund the Madam Curie joint science project, this failure of the US to honor its promises felt pretty bad. It was a major factor in my decision to retire from the Foreign Service. I didn’t make a stink about it, but I did not want to be part of something that I was not proud of.