In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed her famed Five Stages of Grief model. In an eerie resemblance, her model can be applied to Western arms controllers as to how they deal with arms control violations by totalitarian regimes that cheat on agreements they make with Western powers.
The K-R model states that patients diagnosed with a fatal illness go through five stages of grief: (1) denial — rejection of the news as mistaken; (2) anger — “Why me?” plus blaming others; (3) bargaining — searching for a new lifestyle to defer the inevitable; (4) depression — social withdrawal due to inability to cope with the news; and (5) acceptance — the patient is reconciled to imminent mortality.
We may similarly identify the five stages of arms-control grief: (1) denial — our enemy did not violate the arms agreement; (2) anger — blaming arms control skeptics for undermining the agreement by unproven accusations of violation; (3) bargaining — admitting that the enemy did violate the accord, but insisting the violation is insignificant; (4) depression — forced to admit that the violation will not be corrected due to intransigence of the enemy; and (5) acceptance — declaring that the overriding imperative is to preserve the arms-control process, rather than punish violations — let alone, withdraw from the agreement.
History offers excellent examples of these stages. The best illustrations come from the strategic arms accords reached between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1972 ABM Treaty forbade construction of centrally located battle management radar stations, because these could defend against massive attacks, and perhaps tempt one side to consider offensive strikes if a potential aggressor felt secure behind such a shield. When in the mid-1980s our spy satellites discovered an immense facility — huge buildings in a complex the size of several football fields — located in Krasnoyarsk, central Siberia, the Reagan administration accused the Soviets of violating the ABM Treaty. The accusation prompted indignant denials from the Soviets, and anger from ABM Treaty advocates, who feared that Reagan wanted out of the accord. To be fair, Reagan did not like the ABM Treaty that Richard Nixon signed, and did indeed want to find an exit ramp, but he was prepared however reluctantly to honor it, albeit complain when the Soviets violated it. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze admitted that the Soviets had indeed violated the treaty. Yet treaty proponents dismissed the violation as trivial, and in the event opposed any exit from the treaty. It took a new president, George W. Bush, not wedded to past concepts, to exercise America’s right under the ABM Treaty to give six months’ notice of intent to withdraw, and to exit by the end of 2001. Fortunately, Russia then-new president, Vladimir Putin, did not object, thus undercutting ardent arms controllers who opposed American withdrawal.
Illustrative of arms-controller commitment to treaties is the 1979 SALT II accord, which the Carter administration withdrew from Senate consideration after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan later that year, and which by its specific terms was to sunset at the end of 1985. Even after the sunset date, advocates urged that the fact that the Reagan administration complied with its terms — rendered a political necessity in that Congress would not allow withdrawal, having conditioned nuclear modernization on continued compliance — meant that our allegiance had established law by a customary adherence that legally precluded American withdrawal.
Which brings us to Iran and the dismal deal reached by former president Obama in 2016. Palpably eager to reach an accord before the new president took office, Obama serially jettisoned supposedly non-negotiable conditions — e.g., access to all sites, cessation of ballistic missile tests — and thus accepted inability to verify compliance. Given that there were numerous side deals not revealed to the public, one cannot fully audit Iranian compliance. However, the Iranians, like all totalitarians, know that Western powers routinely finesse violations to preserve accords, hoping for better results. Hence it is certain as night follows day that they will violate the accord, knowing that likely they will escape meaningful penalty.
Should we seek a séance with Dr. Kübler-Ross for advice on coping?