In 2009, I became the first woman to negotiate a nuclear arms control deal with Russia. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose me to lead the talks on the treaty that would follow START, I knew that I’d stand out for my gender in the very male world of nuclear diplomacy. But I didn’t know just how much until June 2009.
We were driving a hard pace to complete the new treaty. It was lucky that I already knew my Russian counterpart, Anatoly Antonov, well. I had just returned from three years in Moscow, where I was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He was director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Directorate in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so we had encountered each other at Moscow think tank events. He even invited me to join his arms control advisory council, telling me afterward that the decision had been controversial and that he had had to push back against criticism for allowing a foreign expert to join. From time to time, we had lunch and talked about the ins and outs of U.S. and Russian arms control policy, both nuclear and conventional, at the end of the second Bush administration.
Our acquaintance was one important factor in why the New START Treaty negotiations went so quickly. We never had to spend time on the “getting-to-know-you” dance of international negotiators, figuring out the basics of each other’s personality and style. I knew him as an experienced diplomat and longtime participant in international nonproliferation, arms control and export control regimes; he knew me as a nongovernmental expert, albeit one who had a lot of experience working in Russia. I also had spent considerable time in Russia as a Clinton administration official during the early post-Soviet period, when we were cooperating to strengthen the protection of Russian nuclear materials and warheads against theft and terrorists. So to begin with, we had a wary mutual respect.
That mutual respect was almost upended, though, by a single article. As we entered June and were preparing for a July encounter between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, a Russian newspaper published an article claiming that Antonov would never get the better of me because I was “such a tough negotiator.”
My heart sank when I read the piece because it was clear someone in Moscow was taking aim at Antonov. Not only was the other negotiator tougher than he, but she was a girl. Misogyny is a key feature of the Russian system, so it was a slap. I feared that, at worst, the article was a signal that Antonov was about to be replaced, and we would suffer inevitable delays as a new Russian negotiator was named and we started over to develop a working relationship. At best, I knew it would signal some weeks of gamesmanship from Antonov as he made it clear that he could be tough—tougher than I—at the negotiating table.
I am glad to say that it was the second outcome, although the weeks it took to get over the incident were not pleasant. When the presidents met in Moscow in July, Antonov took measures to cut me out of a key meeting with them. He then gleefully announced to the two delegations when we returned to the plenary meeting table that only he had been present at that crucial meeting and would have to report because I could not do so. On another early occasion in Geneva, I had invited him to a lunch, which is normal practice: From time to time, the negotiators meet for informal discussions over lunch or coffee. It was my first such invitation, and he agreed, but then took his time showing up. Fifty minutes late, he sauntered in and apologized with a flimsy excuse.
I think he expected me to storm out before he arrived, or after he’d given his flimsy excuse. Instead, I calmly said we had better order, and we got on with lunch. He never turned up late to my invitation again, and we used our informal lunches and coffees to good effect in the negotiations, often breaking through conceptual or procedural logjams. Like other negotiators before us, we made good use of paper napkins to sketch on.
Reflecting on this period in the negotiations, I think we got through the games more quickly because I did not overreact. I can’t say I liked being kept out of a key presidential meeting—normally that is a big blow to the authority of a negotiator—but I worked with the White House to ensure they knew I needed to be included in the future. It was never a problem again. At the same time, my calm reaction allowed Antonov to take early wins that were meaningless to the substance or progress of the talks.
On the contrary, as the pace picked up, our ability to interact very directly, with mutual humor and even jokes, made a big difference in keeping down the day-to-day level of tension across the two negotiating teams. Antonov told me several times that he relished playing games, so I took that into account in my own way: Two can play. In my case, it took the form of reaching out to his back row.
In any negotiation, the leads are seated at the table: the two negotiators and the most senior people from the agencies that are working with them. Antonov had a similar set. In the back row are the experts—those who know the weapon systems inside and out, inspectors who know verification procedures, lawyers who understand treaty law, and linguists. Of course, the lead interpreter always sits next to the chief negotiator.
Early on, I realized that Antonov had an excellent team of young women on his delegation. In fact, he took pride in telling me that he had selected the best young female diplomats to participate—at the same time complaining that he couldn’t get enough men because they were not going into the Foreign Ministry but into banking and business instead. All the women were sitting in the back row, along with other top experts from the Russian agencies. I decided I would do my best to encourage his back row, especially the women in it.
I started out conveying my own expertise, to message that women could do nuclear policy just as well as men. I used early plenary sessions to give detailed tutorials about how capable Russian missiles were and how Moscow, therefore, did not need to worry about U.S. missile defenses. These had the added advantage of showing that I knew a lot about technical topics—there were nods from the Russian military experts.
Later, I started reaching out to the women more directly. In December, I gave each of them a White House Christmas ornament, and when February came, there were the beads. One of our delegation members hailed from Louisiana, and for fun she had Mardi Gras beads shipped out to the delegation. I sent a basket of them down to the Russian Mission, prominently labeled “for the women on the Russian delegation.” At that point, Antonov complained that I was showing unfair attention to the female side of his team. “Where are my beads?” he demanded.
I told him all along that he needed to let some of the capable female experts on his delegation into the front row and that they should be allowed to speak. Finally, toward the end of the negotiations, it happened. He announced that his female lawyer would be given a speaking role at the next plenary session. When she appeared in the front row that day and he turned to her, she exclaimed, “At last I get to speak!” Then she launched into a good summing-up of some legal business that we were bringing to conclusion.
One mistake I made in this campaign was to respond to a dinner invitation involving the women on his delegation. We did give and receive dinner invitations from time to time, and I thought it would be a chance to lend continuing support to the Russian women. No way. I dropped into the dinner late, when it was well underway, at a Thai restaurant not too far from the Russian Mission. It was evident that Antonov was behaving in a typical Russian way, dispensing drinks, giving toasts, and waxing lyrical about the special role that women play as the nurturers and supporters of men. He pounced on my arrival to pay some elaborate compliments to me in a similar vein. There were not a few grim smiles around the table. I soon made my apologies and left, reflecting that it would be a while before women would rise in the Russian diplomatic corps. My little games were fun for them, maybe, but I wasn’t going to change their reality.
As I reflect on the “tough-girl negotiator” incident, I think part of it was inevitable. No woman had ever led a negotiation about nuclear arms reduction in the 50-year history of U.S. and Soviet/Russian negotiations. The fact was going to attract comment, and it was going to rouse discomfort. The Russian discomfort I fully expected. In the end, Antonov and I were able to work through it, and he showed himself to be the capable, experienced and well-connected diplomat that he is.
I did not expect the same reaction on the U.S. side of the table, but I have to admit that I had to deal with some of it. While we were still in the early plenary exchanges, my delegation pushed me several times in confidential preparatory meetings to show more anger, to be tougher on the Russians. I was keeping to my own way: talking reasonably and delivering my lectures to the Russians, but the men wanted to see some temper. So one day, I decided to comply.
It was an early plenary meeting, and the Russians were continuing to push the notion that they needed missile defense constraints in the new treaty. They had already been trying, but I always had the same message in response: President Obama and President Medvedev had agreed in London in April that this negotiation was going to be about strategic offensive forces, not missile defense, period.
This time, I engaged in some street theater. I brought my hand down hard on the table and shouted, “President Obama and President Medvedev agreed in London in April that this negotiation is going to be about strategic offensive forces, not missile defense!” I heard afterward that I turned bright red in the bargain. The tantrum had its desired effect: The Russians were surprised, but more importantly, the men in my delegation were jubilant—she could pound the table when she needed to!
I got many compliments in the final team meeting that day. Most importantly, I didn’t need to throw another tantrum for the rest of the negotiations. It was sufficient that I had proved I could do it if I had to. Male negotiators have many styles, some more histrionic, others more measured. I was able to show that women negotiators have the same range, although if I don’t have to blow up, I won’t.