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Why women make great diplomats — tales from a 'tough-girl negotiator'

Why women make great diplomats — tales from a 'tough-girl negotiator'
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Against the backdrop of ongoing tensions between the United States and Russia and an upcoming summit between the two countries, it is increasingly clear that diplomacy remains the best alternative to nuclear war. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenPutin accuses US of organizing 2014 Ukraine coup China has declared information warfare against America — Biden must respond vigorously Envoy says US in talks to remove foreign forces in Libya ahead of elections MORE meets with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Iceland next week, it will represent a diplomatic opportunity and the highest level in-person talks between Washington and Moscow since President Biden took office.

It is worth remembering that both America and Russia have nuclear weapons albeit controlled and limited by diplomatic treaties. But without diplomacy, we remain dogged by the threat of nuclear war. And for diplomacy to work, you need good diplomats.

Enter the forthcoming book “Negotiating the New START Treaty” by Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. chief negotiator of a major arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow. Through it we are reminded of what really matters in diplomacy and what makes a good diplomat.

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The book – an insider’s account of how a year-long nuclear arms negotiation resulted in the signing of a treaty between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 – is a behind-the-scenes look at what really happens when teams from competing countries hammer out an international treaty, with lessons for current and future decisionmakers about war and peace.  

Personal relationships matter

A key lesson from the book is that diplomats are human beings and relationships matter. 

When Gottemoeller was put in charge of the American negotiating team to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as it was going out of force early in the new Obama administration, she understood Russia and Russians. In the late 1970s she had worked as a Russian linguist at a satellite ground station in Fort Detrick, Maryland, on the U.S.-Soviet hotline, put in place after the Cuban Missile Crisis so that American and Soviet leaders could communicate. 

Gottemoeller developed technical knowledge and later moved to a major research organization, the RAND Corporation, delving into analysis of Soviet military journals. She spent three years in Moscow directing the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center.

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Little did she know in those early years that her Russian colleague from think tank days, Anatoly Antonov, would rise to power and be sitting across the table from her at the most senior level of government when the time came for bilateral talks on a new nuclear arms agreement.

“Our acquaintance was one important factor in why the New START Treaty negotiations went so quickly,” Gottemoeller explains in the book. “We never had to spend time on the ‘getting-to-know-you’ dance of international negotiators. Only through the development of relationships in a negotiation do we hit that sweet spot where all parties can say yes.”

Substance and timing are key to getting to yes

Gottemoeller’s second lesson is that diplomats need to know their stuff, and Gottemoller does — from warheads to reentry vehicles, fissile material to nuclear inspectors. As a diplomat with deep knowledge of nuclear issues, she understood every change to the START treaty text, including complex protocols and annexes. Yet she is the first to agree that luck and timing also play a role in diplomacy.

In the book, she makes clear that what helped get her to the diplomatic finish line was the fact that the leaders of the United States and Russia were facing an important deadline in 2009 and both sides wanted nuclear predictability and were driven to get a treaty done quickly.

Women make good diplomats

Another key lesson, and where this book distinguishes itself from others, is the message it sends to women in the nuclear policy field: You can do it. As the first woman chief negotiator in the 50 years of nuclear arms agreements, Gottemoeller knew she was paving the way, for women not just in America but across the globe.

She reached out early to women from the Russian arms control team, finding common ground. Aware that male diplomats often use a show of force to cajole the other side, she allowed herself one major hissy fit in front of the Russians, pounding a table, then retreating to her more contained, calm style. She describes throwing a temper tantrum over a point about missile defense constraints. It worked. “The Russians were surprised, but more importantly, the men in my delegation were jubilant,” she writes. “I was able to show that women negotiators have the same range, although if I don’t have to blow up, I won’t.” And Gottemoeller did it all while raising two children.

Lastly, as a negotiator, Gottemoeller reminds us that the ultimate diplomatic skill is patience. She managed the ups and down of negotiations, including what she calls “the dark side of high-level engagement” when colleagues stare you down or you endure endless secure videoconferences, which the author describes as “the antediluvian version of Zoom.” Despite moments when a deal looked doomed, she persevered. In the end, the new START Treaty that Rose Gottemoeller and her team negotiated came into force on Feb. 5, 2011, at a ceremony in Munich after which she and her counterpart, Anatoly Antonov, toasted in a basement pub in Munich.

So here we stand a decade later. President Biden and President Putin have recently agreed to extend New START, so the treaty Gottemoeller helped negotiate will remain in force until 2026. The terms remain consistent: capping the United States and Russia each at no more than 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs,) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and nuclear-capable bombers, and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.  

Now we hope that diplomacy around the world keeps nuclear conflict at bay. And let’s hope many more women diplomats will take their place at the table.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.