In Praise of Special Envoys

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In Praise of Special Envoys

Despite Jimmy Carter’s failure in North Korea, there’s room in US foreign policy for special envoys. Including Bill Clinton.

No matter how you look at it, former US President Jimmy Carter’s latest trip to North Korea was a failure. Unlike his first trip in 1994, this time Carter failed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or make much progress toward a nuclear arms control agreement. And unlike his trip to Pyongyang last year, Carter proved unable to convince his guests to release another imprisoned American citizen as a humanitarian gesture.

But just because Carter failed doesn’t mean that better selected special envoys can’t, under better conditions, make positive contributions regarding Korea.

Carter made clear that on this latest trip, at the end of last month, he was acting on his own initiative. Both Seoul and Washington eagerly reinforced that impression, stressing that Carter was a private third party. Still, before he arrived, Carter had expressed hopes of meeting with Kim Jong-il as well as his youngest son, and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un.

Carter was also accompanied by three other former national leaders, who like Carter belong to the so-called Elders group of independent eminent statesmen founded by former South African President Nelson Mandela: former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Irish President Mary Robinson, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Still, despite these reinforcements, Kim again declined to see Carter, who had to settle during his three-day sojourn for meetings with Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly President Kim Yong Nam, and other senior, if largely impotent, North Korean representatives.

Meanwhile, the team also failed to secure the release of Korean-American Jun Young Su, detained since last November for allegedly engaging in missionary work. This was in contrast to last August, when the North Koreans allowed him to return with Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who they had detained for entering the country illegally.

Last year, Kim had a good excuse not to meet Carter — he was in China seeking to secure Beijing’s blessing for the latest North Korean hereditary succession (an idea that should repel any genuine communist, and which is particularly awkward this time given Kim Jong-un’s youth and inexperience).

So what happened this year? Kim might have feared that Carter’s group could raise awkward questions regarding North Korea’s atrocious human rights policies. After all, before his arrival, Carter had attacked the South Korean and US governments for curtailing their food deliveries to the North—when it was actually North Korea that had ordered their cessation and the withdrawal of the foreign aid workers—and might have sought to balance those comments with a reprimand of the North.

More likely, Kim probably simply concluded the former president and his colleagues had no real influence. Still, this didn’t stop Kim exploiting their presence for propaganda value, telling them indirectly through a written message of his interest in improving relations and holding an intra-Korean summit without formal preconditions—though Carter himself noted that the North Koreans would demand ‘security guarantees’ before surrendering their nuclear arsenal.

Kim’s desire for a summit with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (and renewed aid) was already well-known and ignores the demands of South Korea, backed by the United States and Japan, for Pyongyang to meet its preconditions, which result from earlier North Korean provocations. Before holding such a summit or other high-level dialogue, Seoul wants Pyongyang to apologize for last March’s sinking of the Cheonan warship and its unprovoked artillery attack in November against civilian targets on Yeonpyeong Island.

Furthermore, before resuming food or other aid, Seoul and Washington insist on guarantees that it won’t simply allow North Korea to continue funnelling the released funds into its military build-up. The fact is that North Korea could feed itself if it spent less on weapons and more on agricultural development.

South Korea and the United States might need to compromise at some point, especially on the nature of the North Korean apology, but the terms need to be decided in advance of any summit or other concession. Meanwhile, Seoul and Washington remain committed to their dual-track policy, which combines offers to negotiate with pressure, including holding back food aid. The previous policy of bribing Pyongyang with gifts and other concessions merely to secure a well-publicized intra-Korean summit and sign agreements that North Korea never implements has clearly failed, so one can understand why the South Koreans and their allies don’t want to return to it.

But whatever Carter’s recent failures, this shouldn’t detract from the idea in principle of using special envoys to address the Korean or other crises. After all, White House-appointed special envoys have a long and productive history in US foreign policy. They were widely used, for example, in the early days of the Republic, when the State Department had a small corps of professional diplomats. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both performed useful roles in Europe in this capacity.

Indeed, foreign policy envoys have come back into fashion in recent decades because they bring several advantages to the conduct of US diplomacy. For a start, unlike senior State Department and other executive branch officials, they don’t require Senate confirmation and don’t testify before Congress. Presidential envoys are also supplementary instruments of White House control of the US national security bureaucracy, allowing presidents to circumvent departments and their heads (such as the Secretary of State) in some cases.

In addition, unlike regular senior officials who have numerous substantive responsibilities and a large bureaucracy to manage, special envoys can focus their time and attention on a single issue, which allows them to get to know its details and players well. They can also address subjects that involve many countries or functional areas, which requires that they employ a perspective different from that of most bureaucratic entities focusing on a single country or issue area. Even State Department country teams involve members who work under the US ambassador in only one country. For example, recent presidential envoys have sought to promote peace between Arabs and Israelis, aligned the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan against a common Islamist foe, or accelerated the development and export of energy from the Caspian Basin.

Hillary Clinton and other Secretaries of State have even appointed their own special envoys because they can bring these advantages of focus and attention to their work as well as potentially relieve the secretaries of having to worry about particular issues. The thankless task of pushing the Six-Party Talks regarding North Korea’s de-nuclearization, for example, fell to Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill during the Bush administration, making it difficult for even this able diplomat to oversee other important US interests in East Asia. The current administration has more wisely assigned that responsibility to a separate State Department official, allowing Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell to focus his efforts on improving relations with Japan, Australia, and other East Asian countries.

Even so, many of the most influential presidential envoys, such as the late Richard Holbrooke, are able to transcend typical bureaucratic divisions by establishing an interagency team that includes experts from the Departments of State, Defence, and many other agencies. During the first two years of the Obama administration, Holbrooke deliberately designed his Afghan-Pak team to integrate the diverse diplomatic, defence, and development tools used by the United States to counter the Islamist movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan and help these countries build strong national governments and effective indigenous security forces.

The US government certainly could use more inter-agency teams. All too often, the US national security system has proven unable to integrate its diplomatic, military, economic, and other elements of national power adequately. Interagency cooperation remains possible at the tactical level even without strategic and operational integration, but it requires serendipitous cooperative relationships, exceptional policy entrepreneurship, or other uncomfortably random conditions. In those cases where unity is achieved, the happy coincidence of high-level policy attention, limited bureaucratic costs, or personal relationships is likely at work.

More broadly, achieving better unity of effort regarding national security policy and strategy is vital. The United States can’t afford the bureaucratic turf disputes, overburdened presidents, or fragmented policies and strategies entailed by a stovepiped structure. Expecting the president to integrate cross-departmental policy and strategy regularly, in addition to other responsibilities, is simply unrealistic. It’s also undesirable, since burdening the president with these integration missions distracts him or her from essential and constitutionally mandated responsibilities, including developing and deciding national-level policies. The US national security system must therefore be able to delegate the management and integration of missions and issues outside the White House.

Of course, despite the numerous advantages, using presidential envoys is by no means problem-free. They often clash with regular US officials—especially the relevant US ambassadors—whose areas of responsibility overlap with theirs. The envoys can cause the receiving governments to hear discordant signals, which can tempt them to try to exploit the differences between, say, the special envoy and the local US ambassador or senior US military official responsible for their country. Some presidential envoys may also be appointed to satisfy domestic political interests. But if there are too many special envoys with channels outside normal bureaucratic reporting chains, they can escape presidential control and end up running their own policy fiefdoms whose agenda may not coincide with those of the White House. For a special envoy to do more than convey and receive messages, that person must be given a staff and other resources to conduct an effective operational role.


But no matter the resources at their disposal, by far the most important resource that a special envoy can enjoy is strong presidential support. When they are believed to have a direct line to a supportive president, the envoy is often treated as if he were the president. Thanks to his close ties with President H. W. Bush, for example, James Baker proved to be a very successful Middle East peace negotiator. Conversely, one reason Jimmy Carter had to take personal charge of negotiating the Camp David Accords was that, being a micromanager, Carter proved unable to empower anyone else to perform that role for him.

In this context, it’s clear that Jimmy Carter isn’t an appropriate special envoy to North Korea, at least for the United States at this time. Unlike in 1994, when at President Bill Clinton’s direction Carter received active help with his negotiations with Pyongyang from the US State Department, the current White House wants nothing to do with him. And Carter is radioactive to many congressmen for his controversial views regarding the Middle East.

If one were being charitable, one could believe that, rather than being an egoist trying to repair his reputation damaged by a flawed presidency, Carter is simply trying to promote world peace and avert a nuclear war in Asia. The long-standing impasse over resuming negotiations on, let alone solving, the crisis caused by North Korea’s nuclear programme was yet to be broken. The governments in Seoul and Washington refuse to buy the same concessions once again without some proof they will be implemented, while Pyongyang is irritated at their hard-line and preoccupied with its opaque succession process.

But if Washington really needs a good special envoy, a superior candidate readily presents himself: former president and current world statesman Bill Clinton. Compared to Carter, he’s more respected, more popular, and—thanks to his wife—able to carry the aura of White House approval in the way that Carter never can.

President Clinton has already had one successful intervention in North Korea in 2009, in which he secured the release of two US journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labour. More importantly, by visiting Pyongyang and dining with Kim Jong-il, Clinton managed to halt the dangerous slide in relations between North Korea and other governments. North Korea had initiated the latest crisis with its testing of ballistic missiles, detonation of another nuclear device, and other provocative behaviour, presumably reflecting the need to overcome concerns that the young Kim Jong-un wouldn’t be sufficiently tough to confront South Korea and the United States.

President Clinton also made his trip at an opportune time and with the right attitude. By the time of his arrival in Pyongyang, everyone was looking for a way to halt the escalating tensions between North Korea and its neighbours. Clinton’s visit therefore provided an excellent opportunity. The White House encouraged Clinton, who had said earlier that he would happily help President Barack Obama with anything the administration wanted but would ‘try to stay out of their way,’ to make the trip.  Gov. Bill Richardson also made a similarly useful personal intervention last winter, which helped deflate the immediate post-Yeonpyeong escalation resulting from North Korean protests against the reciprocal joint US-South Korean military exercises.

Chinese officials, who have apparently given their blessing to the Kim succession, have been pushing for a resumption of negotiations—any negotiations—to lessen the tension on the neighbouring Korean Peninsula. On April 28, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua presumably expressed Beijing’s view of the Carter visit when it wrote that, ‘At a time when Pyongyang and Washington have not normalized ties, the former president’s unofficial meetings would help contribute to better understanding and more effective communication between North Korea and the West.’

But that description wouldn’t really be correct even if it concerned President Clinton. The current impasse results less from neither side’s understanding the other’s position than from the readily understood differences between the parties. South Korea, Japan, and the United States want North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal, while the current regime in Pyongyang never will.