Parchment Promises

For many the holiday season came to an end with the drop of a ball in New York City and the kiss of a nearby loved one. The excitement and anticipation of presents and surprises now since revealed have dissipated. We now look to start the new year with our resolutions in hand and the hope that we will succeed this year in maintaining them where past attempts to do the same had failed. But failed promises to one’s self is commonplace this time of year. But what of the failed promises from the world of politics?

The most recent present that was promised but was not delivered under the tree, or buzzing over it as the case might have been, was Kim Jong-Un’s veiled threat of a ‘Christmas Surprise’. President Trump suggested that it might be a nice vase and not a missile test as most in Washington D.C. suspected. Ultimately St. Nick made his annual trip and the New Year bells tolled with no gifts received from North Korea’s leader. Perhaps we should consider that the greatest gift of all.

The trouble for the Trump administration with all this unpleasant holiday rhetoric is that it brings to light what appears to be another example of a failed foreign policy with North Korea in regards to denuclearization. This is not just a problem of the current administration, however. Historically speaking every administration at some time or another enters into these types of agreements with leaders of foreign nations. Often times the greatest achievement of those parchment promises is simply getting a foreign leader to sign the document.

We saw this in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum where five countries, including Russia, signed. The memorandum was meant to ensure that none of the signatories would use force against the territory of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan nor would accession be a threat to their sovereignty. In 2014 in the span of just three to six weeks time Russia annexed Crimea by the Russian Federation thereby breaking their agreement in the memorandum. At least this agreement had the ability to maintain the status quo for just over 19 years. Other more recent examples were much more transparent in their lack of merit let alone enforceability. Interestingly they both involved the subject of climate change.

The Obama-Xi climate agreement announced in November of 2014 was, to quote Charles Krauthammer, “…a fraud of epic proportions.”. It gave China a 16 year pass before they had to begin cutting carbon emissions, while the US agreed to a 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels by 2025. That rate of reduction was more than double our pace at the time. Additionally China’s plateau on carbon emissions by 2030 was more smoke-and-mirrors. China was projected to reach that plateau naturally by 2030 due to the estimated slowdown of urbanization, industry production and population growth. By signing China could reap the benefits of appearing to be climate minded while still continuing to be the number one climate offender for another 16 years. But why stop at 16 years when in just two years time the United Nations would up the ante and offer you 30?

In what became the most globally participated in agreement weighing in at an overwhelming 195 signatories, the Paris Climate Accords couldn’t wait to splash the climate pot with their offering to China. Not only did they get a bump to 30 years before having to reduce carbon emissions, they also were allowed to continue with the planned opening of over 200 coal mines before that time lapsed – down from 300 mines. Though notice was given in 2017 of the United States intent to withdraw from the Accords, we officially withdrew on 04 November 2019 per the agreement rules.

Ultimately the withdrawal was nothing more than a formality. The Paris Accord is voluntary and has no means within it to enforce a penalty or what that penalty would be. In realizing this we expose the true reason behind why so many foreign policies fail. They are unenforceable and without consequence. Put simply it’s bad business. Any administration who wishes to be viewed as leaders of foreign policy need to return to making smart agreements.

“Smart” agreements are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. Read any of the agreements mentioned above and you’ll find one if not multiple parts missing. It’s a basic concept that many in Washington D.C. tend to shy away from because they don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of international policy. So long as the outcome is a stunning photo-op, congratulations to be had and people feel good about themselves – what else matters? President Obama was a master at creating those feel-good moments and photo-ops accompanied by long winded speeches that amounted to nothing more than wasted ink on non-recycled paper.

What drives Washington D.C. crazy is that President Trump is a business man, not a career politician. He knows when to walk away from agreements that are not smart like the Paris Accord and NAFTA. He also knows how to write and negotiate them like he did with the USMCA which replaced NAFTA. That is not to say all of the President Trumps agreements were smart, as previously mentioned regarding the denuclearization agreement with North Korea in 2018.

I suppose President Trump is a fan of his photo-ops too.

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