The Waning of On-Site Inspections and Strategic Seychel

Generals Roland Lajoie and Gregory Govan have reminded us what we’ve gained and what we have to lose if we let the last on-site inspections go by the boards. They should know: between them, they’ve carried out and overseen more OSIs than just about anybody. If Donald Trump and his team decline Vladimir Putin’s offer to extend New START – the last remaining vehicle for inspections governing nuclear arms reductions — we’ll have to go back to the drawing boards.

That’s a stunning thought, since so many Presidents have worked so hard for OSIs, and since the greatest strides in reducing nuclear weapons and dangers were enabled by them. Equally stunning is how many people no longer seem to appreciate this history or what’s at stake. It’s as if the transmission belts of experience-based learning have ground to a halt in our finest finishing schools of civilian and military training.

My mother, who was born along the Lithuanian-Polish border and spoke yiddish, used the word “seychel” around the house. Roughly translated, seychel is a mixture of knowing, understanding, and the kind of wisdom that doesn’t come from book learning. It’s the opposite of hubris. You forget hard-won lessons at your peril — just as hard-edged, hyper-realistic strategic analysts and military officers seem to be forgetting them now.

Harry S Truman [Dear Readers: there is no period after the “S;” it was a fictitious letter that added dash to a haberdasher] needed inspections to have any hope to make the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan a reality. This plan to achieve international control over the Bomb’s production didn’t have a chance, not just because the Soviet Union wasn’t about to give up its veto power, but also because the Kremlin couldn’t abide by on-site inspections.

President Dwight Eisenhower tried to tackle the fearsome problem of surprise attack through transparency measures, including the Open Skies Treaty. The Kremlin said ‘nyet.’ President John F. Kennedy wanted to stop nuclear testing completely, but he and Nikita Khrushchev couldn’t overcome differences over the number of inspections, the composition of inspection teams, and the equipment they could carry.

Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter assumed that OSIs were a bridge too far. And they were right. Nixon and Carter, however, convinced the Kremlin to bless the use of “national technical means” of intelligence gathering, which permitted remote confirmation of obligations reached. Remote was good; remote plus on-site inspections is better.

For decades, the Kremlin equated OSIs with legalized spying. There was only one place where legalized spying was allowed since the onset of the Cold War, and that was in divided Germany and divided Berlin. The four victorious powers—the United States, Soviet Union, France and Great Britain — worked out arrangements to inspect each other’s holdings there on a reciprocal basis. These “Military Liaison Missions” were always challenging and sometimes quite dangerous. Lajoie and Govan cut their eye teeth on these missions. During the Reagan administration, their colleague, Major “Nick” Nicolson was killed by a young Soviet sentry who panicked as Nicholson was carrying out a tour of an authorized area. A French officer, Adjutant Chef Philippe Mariotti, also lost his life.

And still, these tours continued. What none could then imagine in the mid-1980s was that they would become ideal training for OSIs when, at sleepy negotiations in Stockholm, Mikhail Gorbachev surprised skeptics by agreeing to them for military exercises above certain thresholds. The Forum for these talks was the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The nuclear crowd didn’t pay much attention to these talks. But Gorbachev was intent to take away the West’s ‘enemy image,’ and this was one way to do so. The internal deliberations and friction prompted by Gorbachev’s decision are explained in juicy detail by Oleg Grinevsky, the Soviet Ambassador who wrote a book about the Stockholm talks with Lynn Hansen, who moved on from his training at the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in Potsdam to become a diplomat. (Another surprising veteran of the U.S. MLM was General William Odom.)

Grinevsky relays the cold fury of Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev at Gorbachev’s maneuvering, which included freezing out Mr. Nyet, Andrei Gromyko, whom Gorbachev elevated above a Foreign Ministry he could no longer control. Akhromeyev accused Grinevsky of treason because the inspections he was advocating at Gorbachev’s encouragement would reveal Soviet weakness rather than strength. Grinevsky got his revenge by suggesting that, for maximum effect, Akhromeyev would be the ideal messenger to go to Stockholm to reveal the Kremlin’s about face.

This was in 1986, just one year after Major Nicholson was killed. The floodgates were opened. One year later, in 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty which opened up inspections at missile bases, production facilities, destruction sites, and elsewhere. The United States needed to create an On-Site Inspection Agency and ramp up training programs for inspectors. Lajoie and Govan became its first and third Directors. Experience at the MLM mission, as defense attachés, and foreign area officers with language skills and cultural understanding of the Soviet Union were primo recruits.

Then came START and more inspections. As Lajoie and Govan write, the impossible became routine. Deep cuts became possible. Reciprocity was the rule, as in the old MLM days, except a professional camaraderie replaced near collisions on the roads.

Inspections are now withering, as is the practice of nuclear arms control. Under the terms of the INF Treaty, inspections stopped after a thirteen-year period. The discovery of a Russian missile prohibited under the Treaty came later. Washington and Moscow walked away from the INF Treaty, which has joined the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, START II, and others on the dustbin of history.

Some tell us that we no longer need on-site inspections. None of them, I’m willing to bet, have any experience in treaty monitoring. Those who do — another vanishing breed — tell us that the “secret sauce” of U.S. success isn’t any one means of collecting data; it’s the combinedmeans of collecting data. Remove one method and the other methods aren’t as good. Remove OSIs, and you remove what Lajoie and Govan call “exquisite ground truth.”

How did we lose our strategic seychel? Transparency is a valuable tool, if used properly, to foster alliance cohesion and moderate major power competition. And yet the Open Skies Treaty, which could be re-imagined to breathe new life into U.S. political-military diplomacy, hangs by a thread because the Kremlin has misbehaved. When does giving up something of value because of someone else’s misbehavior make sound strategic sense? Eisenhower would weep. And on-site inspections, a great, hard-won diplomatic achievement, also hang by a thread. Kennedy, Reagan and George H.W. Bush would weep.

Received wisdom nowadays strikes me as blinkered. Is there no room for cooperation in the current geopolitical landscape? We still pay honor to the fallen and learn about historic battles, but our sights seem to be lowered by endless wars and tactical considerations. We’ve also forgotten historic diplomatic achievements.

Do we still teach the Big Picture? The Big Picture includes diplomatic accomplishment as well as military prowess. The Big Picture is about winning without fighting. How did we manage to succeed for three-quarters of a century with no mushroom clouds on battlefields? The confident crowd answer “deterrence,” and are willing to pay a trillion dollars or more to extend this streak.

They lack seychel. Deterrence is necessary, but insufficient. Deterrence breaks down, even between nuclear-armed states. Deterrence doesn’t help with accidents and miscalculations. Deterrence badly needs diplomacy to succeed. And the diplomacy of success is embodied in nuclear arms reduction treaties, backed up by on-site inspections.

There’s only one treaty left. Have we enough seychel to extend it, if only to buy time until we think more strategically?

Source: Arms Control Wonk