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Attacking proposed arms control agreements is a time-honored political game.  Virtually every major arms control treaty between the US and the Soviet Union was subjected to fierce criticism from hard line Senators.  Either the deals were too generous to the other side, or they did not provide adequate verification, or they limited US freedom to develop important weapons systems.  This feature of Cold War politics has now been revived by Mitt Romney, past and presumptively future Republican Presidential candidate.  No doubt hoping to burnish his foreign policy credentials, Romney has come out strongly against the proposed START treaty with Russia, in an article in the Washington Post.  I’m not going to get into a detailed point-by-point discussion of Romney’s attacks on the treaty.   (For that, readers can take a look at this piece in Slate or this one in the LA Times.)  The issue that is relevant to this blog is whether critics like Romney have fully considered the alternative to a negotiated agreement.

It is easy to second guess.   Whenever a diplomatic team brings home the fruit of their labors, their superiors can always complain that they did not get as good a deal as our side might have wished for.  Outsiders such as Mitt Romney can always score political points by claiming that the US was out-negotiated, and that the proposed deal is too favorable to the Russians.  Such critics never seem to have to demonstrate, however, how they could have obtained a better deal.  I see nothing in Romney’s piece that suggests that the US arms control team was incompetent, or that they did not have in mind all of the interests he claims we should be trying to protect.  Therefore, I would be inclined to start from the assumption that they negotiated the best deal they could get, unless the contrary can be proven.   

Given that assumption, the only relevant test for deciding whether or not to ratify this treaty should be whether it is better than no treaty at all.  This is where critics such as Romney fall far short.  They never seem to take the trouble to compare what each side is allowed or restricted from doing under the proposed treaty with what they are allowed or restricted from doing under no treaty.  So for example, if a treaty critic complains that the treaty does not sufficiently limit the number of warheads that Russia is allowed to field, perhaps they ought to be required to explain that if there is no treaty, the Russians might be subjected to no limits at all.   

Mediators are generally familiar with the concept of BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreeement) from Fisher and Ury’s book Getting to Yes.  In arms control negotiations, however, the alternative to a negotiated agreement may be war, or at least an expensive arms race.  In the context of litigated disputes, rejecting an agreement is likely to lead to depositions and motions and trials and appeals.  It is difficult to view these alternatives as “best.”

For many disputes, the parties need not be concerned so much about the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, as they should consider the range of possible alternatives over which they do not have complete control.  We could call this the Uncertainty of having No Agreement or UNA.  (Others have suggesting dividing the alternatives into categories like BATNA, WATNA and MLATNA, for best, worst and most likely alternatives.)  In evaluating the advisability of accepting any negotiated agreement, parties have to think about all of the possible scenarios that could develop if the proposed agreement is scuttled.  If they are considering choosing UNA, they might want to assign a range of probabilities to all of the alternative scenarios that choice entails, ranging from victory in whatever contest the parties are engaged in, to the possibility of obtaining a more favorable settlement, to stalemate, and to defeat.  Only when the parties have fully considered all of the potential alternatives to a proposed agreement are they in a position to judge whether to reject the deal on the table.

(Still from the classic film Dr. Strangelove, where the president tells the Air Force General and the Soviet Ambassador that there is no fighting allowed in the War Room.)