foreign affairs

back channel

back channel

A “back channel” is an unofficial means of communication between two nations or two political entities. “Backchanneling” is also used as a verb, to refer to the act of holding behind-the-scenes talks.

Back channels are often used when two governments don’t have formal diplomatic relations with each other. The United States and North Korea, for example, often rely on back channel diplomacy when they want to exchange messages. They have a few long-established informal “channels” of communication. One is in New York, where North Korea’s ambassadors  can meet with US officials at UN headquarters. (North Korea does not have a diplomatic presence in Washington DC, and the US doesn’t have a diplomat stationed in Pyongyang.)

Even when a high-profile meeting does take place between US officials and North Koreans, that meeting has normally been preceded by extensive backchannel communication. That’s because the public meetings are rare and are usually high-stakes. Both nations rely on backchanneling to help prepare ahead of time and lay ground rules.

Before the historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, for example, the two countries held private talks to plan out all the details. Preparatory back channel talks typically cover issues like location, timing, and topics to be included.

The US government uses back channels in its communication with Iran, Cuba, and other nations or groups which it doesn’t have formal relations with. In some cases, third parties – countries which have diplomatic relations with both of the countries – can facilitate discussions.

Further back, private channels have sometimes paved the way to establish diplomatic relations between two states. During the onset of World War Two, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration used back channels to make contact with the Soviet Union. The State Department was not involved in the private talks, which eventually led to formal diplomatic relations between the US and the USSR.

During the Kennedy administration, Robert Kennedy served as an informal go-between during negotiations between the US and the USSR. Those back channel talks helped diffuse tensions over the Cuban missile crisis and eventually led to the Soviets pulling their missiles out of Cuba.And during the Nixon administration, the US and Soviets kept a shaky peace thanks, in part, to an ongoing back channel negotiation between Henry Kissinger and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.

Since 2016, there have been a number of concerns raised about the private channels of communication used between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s team. Before Trump’s election, members of his campaign reportedly had close contacts with Russian officials and with “operatives” linked to Russia. These contacts were not disclosed to those outside of the campaign, but at least nine other campaign staffers were aware of them.

After Trump was elected, Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, reportedly discussed the possibility of setting up a back channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin. Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, told Moscow officials that Kushner had made that suggestion to him personally during a meeting in Trump Tower in December 2016. Kushner later denied the report.

It is unusual for a president-elect to set up a back channel with another state. However, PBS notes that it’s not unprecedented; Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama were all accused of doing just that.



“Appeasement” is a diplomatic policy in which nations attempt to make peace by making concessions to an aggressive nation. Appeasement is often linked with the policies of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain during World War II.

The most famous case of appeasement is the Munich Pact, in which Britain and France, under the leadership of Chamberlain, conceded Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. The hope was that it would stop the aggression of Hitler and the Nazis, but it did not, and was largely seen as giving Germany a free pass.

Due to those failures, the policy today has a very negative connotation, along with a related concept “peace at any price.” Defense hawks regularly accuse opponents of appeasing the enemy.

Der Spiegel outlines how the strategy failed in the 1930s.

peace at any price

A term outlining the philosophy of appeasement, in which supporters argue that peace is worth the cost asked by an enemy. It was once used as a positive term, but became an attack on appeasement after World War II.

Peace at any price is often linked with former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who is famous for attempting to appease Nazi Germany before WWII. He signed the Munich Pact, which gave Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. The failure of Chamberlain’s attempt for peace, combined with the cost of an entire nation in that attempt, turned “peace at any price” into an attack on appeasement.

It is also sometimes referred to as “peace at any cost.”

peace through strength

peace through strength

The accumulation of military power and security assets by a country to encourage an amenable diplomatic atmosphere with other countries.

The phrase peace through strength is attributed to the policies of Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138. Hadrian strengthened the empire’s frontier security with walls in modern-day England, Switzerland, and Germany. The emperor also encouraged the use of non-residents as defense forces to bolster existing troops. Elizabeth Speller’s Following Hadrian included the passage, “His agenda was clear: peace through strength, or failing that, peace through threat.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that peace through strength was non-existent in American texts until 1937. Bernard Baruch’s 1952 book Peace through Strength and Cold War tensions brought the term phrase into the fore. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used peace through strength in a September 1964 speech, saying that he promised “an administration that will keep the peace and keep faith with freedom at the same time.”

In American politics, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan cemented the phrase during his 1980 campaign. He argued that President Jimmy Carter’s administration failed to maintain the “margin of safety” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Reagan advocated for negotiation with the declining Soviet Union as well as a significant military buildup to thwart the global spread of communism.

After his election, the Reagan administration demonstrated peace through strength by promoting increased funding for strategic nuclear weapons, new weapon systems, and quick-strike forces. Reagan’s advisors also advocated for the capability to defeat Soviet military assets moving anywhere in the world. The president met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for direct talks on five occasions between 1985 and 1988.

Reagan’s use of peace through strength is often attributed as a cause for the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The Republican Party platform included this phrase in every election from 1980 to 2016. The 2016 platform mentioned this concept by stating, “As Americans and as Republicans we wish for peace – so we insist on strength.” The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute issues Peace Through Strength Awards each year to public officials who have supported American security and freedom.


The Hill (December 3, 2019): “Thirty years have passed since President Reagan left office, but his vision for ‘peace through strength’ still defines the world view of Americans, who remain steadfast in their support for a strong military that both keeps the peace and advances the values of freedom and democracy abroad.”

Foreign Policy (October 15, 2013): “Peace through strength is not a lonely position. In fact, there are numerous voices in the United States and in Israel calling for more political and diplomatic pressure and engagement.”

The Washington Post (August 19, 1980): “Ronald Reagan accepted the endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars today with a pledge to pursue a policy of ‘peace through strength’ that he said would restore ‘a defense capability that provides a margin of safety for America.’”

missile gap

“Missile gap” is a Cold War-era phrase that was used to describe the difference in number and power of missiles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

The term was first used by Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1958 to accuse then-President Eisenhower of being weak on defense. The idea of a missile gap was debunked, but the perception of one persisted. The missile gap actually favored the U.S., but false claims of Soviet superiority led to a surge in military expansion.

military industrial complex

military industrial complex

The “military industrial complex” refers to the comfortable relationship between the military, the federal government and the defense contractors that produce weapons and equipment for war.

The term was immortalized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. In the speech, Eisenhower cites the military-industrial complex as a warning to the American people not to let this dictate America’s actions at home or abroad.

Said Eisenhower: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

soft power

Soft power is the ability to obtain what one wants through co-option rather than the use of coercion.

The phrase was first coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in the late 1980s and is now widely used in international affairs.

From Nye’s book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics: “Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power — the ability to coerce — grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”