Reshaping Strategic Relationships: Expanding the Arms Control Toolbox
Soon after the Obama administration took office, Vice President Joe Biden set the tone of the new administration's approach toward Moscow when he called for the United States and Russia to press the "reset button" in their bilateral relationship. This theme was reiterated in the March 9, 2009, meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Providing guidance to their bureaucracies, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, at their meeting on the margins of the April G-20 financial summit in London, "decided to begin bilateral intergovernmental negotiations to work out a new, comprehensive, legally binding agreement on reducing and limiting strategic offensive arms to replace" START.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-Chinese military-defense dialogue that had been suspended by China in November 2008 to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan resumed in February 2009. Again on the margins of the G-20 financial summit, Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao discussed how to "build a positive, cooperative, comprehensive U.S.-Chinese relationship for the 21st century" and went on to announce the creation of a "Strategic Track" as part of a new U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
Strategic dialogue and formal arms control treaty negotiations are but two elements of a wider spectrum of cooperative security activities available to U.S. officials and their counterparts to revamp the U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese strategic relationships. Other cooperative security activities include:
- Information, data exchanges, and transparency measures;
- Joint studies, experiments, and planning;
- Personnel exchanges, liaison arrangements, and joint military staff bodies;
- Joint activities, programs, systems, and centers; and
- Unilateral initiatives and coordinated national undertakings.
This expanded arms control toolbox also can be used to deepen cooperation among the five nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Such cooperative efforts could include the creation of building blocks for pursuing nuclear abolition.
The specific combination of cooperative security activities would vary across today's strategic challenges. Decisions on what particular measures to use will depend not only on U.S. thinking but also on that of U.S. partners. The acceptability of different measures will vary with the underlying political-military relationship, past precedents, and the strategic cultures of the countries directly concerned. The timing of proposals for specific cooperative initiatives will be another important consideration. Not least, the success of U.S. efforts to use an expanded arms control toolbox to help create strong habits of U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese strategic cooperation will depend on comparable commitments to that goal by Moscow and Beijing.
Building a Nonadversarial U.S.-Russian Strategic Relationship
As the Obama administration moves to reset the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship, it confronts deep Russian mistrust of U.S. strategic intentions as well as a pervasive official and public belief that the United States "took advantage" of Russia's weakness in the post-Cold War turmoil. NATO expansion from the 1990s onward, U.S. and NATO use of force in Kosovo in 1999, U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the pursuit of national missile defenses, and the recent proposal to deploy missile defenses in eastern Europe all are cited in a Russian bill of particulars.
On the U.S. side, there is continuing uncertainty about Moscow's intentions. Russia's use of military force against Georgia in August 2008 heightened concerns about Moscow's pursuit of a restored sphere of influence. Sometimes, questions also arise about whether Russian officials would welcome a nuclear Iran as a check on U.S. power. Areas of cooperation exist, most prominently efforts to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but the goal of a nonadversarial relationship characterized by U.S.-Russian strategic cooperation has eluded each of Obama's immediate predecessors-George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
Successful negotiation of a START replacement is the necessary first step. Even as those negotiations accelerate, however, U.S. and Russian officials can draw on the full set of cooperative security activities to address mutual uncertainties, deal with key disputes, and lay the building blocks for longer-term, mutually advantageous cooperation.
Joint Studies, Experiments, and Planning
Given today's deep mutual uncertainties, Washington and Moscow need to find better "windows" into each other's thinking, plans, and programs. Traditionally, arms control negotiations partly served this purpose, and the START follow-on process will do so again.
Strategic dialogue can be another means to provide such windows. To serve that goal, however, a new U.S.-Russian strategic dialogue will require a changed approach on each side. U.S. officials will need to go beyond the recent scripted presentations of U.S. positions of the Bush administration that did little to meet Russian concerns; Russian officials will need to break out of their Cold War confrontational habits of thinking. On both sides, sustained top-level attention and a robust institutional structure to ensure bureaucratic follow-through will be other keys to success.
Joint studies would be a natural complement. There are many possible topics, including the emerging proliferation threat, future nuclear weapons requirements, new concepts of strategic stability, and the political-military conditions of nuclear abolition. Participants could be drawn from the two countries' respective defense establishments, militaries, and nuclear weapons laboratories. Each country's participants would address and then discuss an agreed set of issues. Even if the two sides could not produce a consensus written report, the process would provide each side with valuable insights into the other's thinking. Official intergovernmental studies would be preferable, but so-called Track 2 efforts of retired officials and experts could be an initial stepping stone.
Joint experiments would also provide windows into each side's thinking and build cooperation by addressing shared problems. Ample precedent exists in both the Joint Verification Experiment of the late 1980s, looking at enhanced verification measures for the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, and the U.S.-Russian-IAEA Trilateral Agreement of the late 1990s, looking at monitoring nuclear warhead storage. Building on the Trilateral Agreement, a joint experiment on nuclear warhead storage monitoring would be a logical first step. This action could be followed by a joint experiment on procedures for the mutually monitored dismantlement of nuclear warheads, including consideration of what types of international involvement or exchange of information could be provided.
Joint military-defense planning is another area to explore. Possible joint responses to nuclear terrorism are one example. Consider a situation in which a non-nuclear-weapon state had thwarted a terrorist attempt to smuggle an improvised nuclear device or even a stolen nuclear weapon through its national territory or waters. What type of assistance would such a country want from the nuclear-weapon states to render that device or weapon safe, how would that assistance be provided in an extremely urgent fashion, and what would be done with the device or weapon? Comparable joint planning could focus on all of the actions that then would be necessary to seek to attribute the terrorist device to its source and to determine the identity of possible aiders and abettors. Crisis gaming also could be used to build habits of cooperation in dealing with the shared terrorist nuclear challenge.
Institutionalizing Defense-Military Engagement
More institutionalized engagement between Russian and U.S. military and defense officials is another cooperative security activity. U.S. readiness to move ahead in this area, however, has not been matched by Russia, reflecting some combination of the downward slide in the overall relationship between the two countries, lingering Cold War thinking, and uneasiness about a U.S. presence at Russian military sites and institutions, even on a reciprocal basis.
Assuming greater opportunity for cooperation in today's changed political context, one possibility would be regularized exchanges of personnel at each other's military training institutions, for example, in the United States at the National Defense University and Army, Air, and Naval War Colleges. More formal military liaison arrangements also could be explored, with senior Russian officers present at one or more U.S. defense sites and vice versa. Such liaison arrangements would build on the presence of Russian military personnel at the North American Air Defense Command during the Y2K transition from December 1999 to January 2000. The two countries could create two joint, standing Senior Military Staff Groups, one in Moscow and one in Washington, each with flag-rank officers from each side, for exchanges on issues of mutual concern as well as approaches to shared challenges. Regardless of the specific mechanism, the purpose of these activities would be to help improve each side's understanding of the other's thinking, plans, and programs and, again, to build habits of cooperation.
Indeed, U.S. officials could consider unilaterally proposing a Russian military presence at one or more U.S. sites, even without asking for reciprocity. Given Moscow's concerns about U.S. missile defenses and the erosion of Russia's deterrent, two possibilities to explore would be a nonreciprocal Russian liaison presence at the North American Air Defense Command or at the Missile Defense Agency. The latter option would complement possible pursuit of a joint missile defense capability along the lines discussed in the next section.
Squaring the Missile Defense Circle
A joint U.S.-Russian-NATO missile defense system could square the circle on the potential deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe. It also could be part of a more comprehensive, if somewhat longer-term, approach to addressing the deep and continuing U.S.-Russian differences over national missile defenses. The possibility of joint U.S.-Russian missile defenses, whether globally or for Europe, has been broached periodically by U.S. and Russian officials and experts over the past two decades.
The most recent proposal came in June 2007 from Russia's then-president, Vladimir Putin, in response to U.S. plans for deploying missile defenses in eastern Europe. Current U.S. plans for this "third site" would put ten longer-range interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic. But Putin, who is now prime minister, had proposed instead that Russia and the United States develop a joint missile defense for Europe based partly on a Russian radar in Azerbaijan. Some serious technical work on joint activities has been done, both in the 1990s and after Putin's proposal.
A joint missile defense system could begin with a pilot project to test the feasibility of combining available radars, interceptors, and command and control assets, including decision-making rules, to defend Iran's immediate neighbors against that country's existing medium-range missiles. In parallel, U.S., Russian, and NATO experts could define the architecture, components, and associated procedures for a follow-on joint system to counter a more advanced Iranian nuclear missile threat, as well as other threats to Europe. The particular sites for deploying new interceptors and radars would be addressed as part of designing this overall joint follow-on architecture.
Pursuit of a joint missile defense program by the United States, other NATO members, and Russia would help meet Moscow's fears that U.S. missile defenses ultimately are aimed at negating Russia's nuclear deterrent. The potential payoffs of such a proposal for a joint missile defense program in Europe as a means of reassuring Russia and avoiding new arms competition would be increased were it joined to a U.S. commitment promptly to follow a successful START replacement with additional U.S.-Russian negotiations to reach an agreement on offense-defense limitations. A joint program and system also might provide all parties concerned with a credible way to step back from the currently configured plans for deploying missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Not least, U.S.-Russian-NATO missile defense cooperation could be part of a broader strategy of offering Iran's leaders a choice between, on the one hand, the benefits of economic, political, and social integration into the wider international community, including steps to meet Iran's security concerns, and, on the other hand, the risks of further isolation and military containment by the United States, Russia, and other countries. In effect, cooperation would send a very strong signal to Iranian leaders that if they actually acquire nuclear weapons, the great powers will act together to ensure that Iran will not gain from that move. Finally, proposing joint missile defenses would be a good test of the potential nonproliferation payoffs for the United States of addressing Russian strategic concerns.
In addition, Moscow and Washington could act to implement their 2000 agreement to create a Joint Data Exchange Center for early-warning data. Officially, implementation has been prevented by disputes over liability; in practice, neither side has perceived a significant advantage in going forward. Implementation would be an important symbolic step to demonstrate both countries' interest in a changed relationship.
Nuclear Posture Review
Congress has mandated a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to be carried out by the secretary of defense in consultation with the secretaries of energy and state. The review will consider all nuclear weapons issues, from the role of nuclear weapons to the future nuclear weapons complex. Its answers will affect the evolving U.S. strategic relationship with Russia, both directly and as a result of Russian reactions.
At the least, U.S. officials should consider informing the Russians of the ongoing progress of the NPR, the key issues being discussed, and eventually the key conclusions reached. U.S. officials even could exchange views formally or informally with Russian officials about selected issues being addressed during the NPR. For example, U.S. officials could raise questions about Russia's own strategic programs, goals, and intentions as well as its views on broader global strategic issues. How to do so would raise its own issues. Engagement of Russia on the NPR would have to be conducted in a way that protected sensitive information on detailed U.S. operational practices and capabilities. It also would need to be done in a manner and at a level that would be taken seriously by the top levels of the Russian military-defense establishment. Such a unilateral U.S. initiative would reduce uncertainties and misperceptions that could affect the parallel START negotiations, would avoid U.S. or Russian misunderstandings and missteps, and would open windows into each other's strategic thinking.
NATO Enlargement and Russia's Near-Abroad Posture
Successfully resetting the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship will require addressing Russia's opposition to NATO enlargement. Conversely, it also will require addressing U.S. concerns about Russia's political intentions on its borders. These issues far exceed the scope of this discussion. Successful pursuit of the types of cooperative security activities set out here would build needed habits of U.S.-Russian cooperation and bring both countries closer to their oft-stated goal of a nonadversarial strategic relationship. Within that changed milieu, Russian attitudes could change (e.g., at least toward NATO enlargement in the past and Russia's need for a security buffer zone); existing mechanisms could prove more effective (e.g., the NATO-Russia Partnership); and now inconceivable options could be considered (e.g., bringing a nonadversarial Russia into a NATO transformed to deal with 21st-century threats).
Building U.S.-Chinese Habits of Strategic Cooperation
Improved relations between Taiwan and China since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office a year ago have reduced the dangers of a military confrontation involving China, Taiwan, and the United States. Nevertheless, miscalculation by China or the United States remains conceivable, as does the danger of growing strategic competition. Chinese officials are uncertain and concerned about the eventual scope of U.S. missile defenses as well as growing U.S. longer-range conventional strike capabilities. U.S. officials continue to watch closely the growth of China's military power and are uncertain about Chinese strategic plans, programs, and intent.
Beijing and Washington have compelling reasons to avoid military confrontation and competition, while building habits of strategic cooperation. They have strong economic interdependencies as well as many shared regional and global security interests. Cooperative security activities again can contribute to shaping a stable and cooperative relationship. Yet, historical memories, a mix of congruent and competing interests, and differing strategic cultures all shape what cooperative security activities may be practicable and how soon. Moreover, although precedents exist, including, for example, the six-party talks on North Korea, they are much weaker than in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Thus, the bilateral goal should be to achieve some initial cooperative successes, create some additional precedents, and begin a longer-term process.
Defining Principles, Institutionalizing the Process
Resumed strategic dialogue between the two countries promises to provide needed windows into each side's thinking on strategic issues, but China's leaders have been prepared to cut off past strategic discussions, as well as other military-to-military contacts, to express displeasure with perceived U.S. provocations.
Obama's announced visit to China later this year could provide an opportunity for the two presidents to define the overarching principles that would govern their resumed strategic dialogue and their broader strategic relationship in the early 21st century. One important principle would be affirmation of the importance of institutionalizing a renewed U.S.-Chinese strategic dialogue and of insulating it from future political ups and downs. Ongoing working groups could be established to address baskets of issues between high-level meetings.
In negotiating these principles, one particularly difficult question likely will be whether the United States can accept and acknowledge limited nuclear vulnerability because of China's capabilities. Such acceptance may be necessary to avoid growing offense-defense competition, with its adverse spillovers. The United States may have no choice, given China's apparent readiness to invest whatever it deems necessary to hold at least one U.S. city at risk. Acknowledging China's limited deterrent would require language that accepted strategic reality but did not unintentionally reinforce more adversarial ways of thinking in China and the United States. The United States also would need to be careful not to undermine Japan's confidence in the U.S. security relationship.
Calls for greater strategic transparency have been resisted by Chinese officials. China's periodic White Papers on National Defense, including its 2008 paper, are a partial exception. The arms control model of "hard" transparency-exchanges of data on numbers of warheads, systems, and locations-runs counter to China's historic strategic culture, its continuing sense of weakness, and its operational practices. A different approach would emphasize the "softer" side of transparency, including, for example, discussions of perceived threats and required capabilities for responding to them, as well as of nuclear doctrine, roles, missions, and decision-making. Both sides' views of conventional ballistic missiles-shorter-range in China's case, longer-range in the U.S. case-also could be part of this set of exchanges. "Soft" transparency could prove more acceptable to China but still be useful to both countries.
From Dialogue to Joint Studies
Joint studies may be a particularly promising next step after strategic dialogue to reduce the risk of mutual miscalculation, lessen mutual uncertainties, and build habits of cooperation. Studies would entail more focused and sustained, rather than limited and ad hoc, discussions. By way of example, topics could include global proliferation trends, dimensions of WMD terrorism, sources of strategic miscalculation and miscommunication, possible futures of nuclear weapons, and pathways to nuclear abolition. Depending on Chinese readiness to participate officially, an initial study or assessment might need to be carried out, not on a government-to-government basis but by some mix of experts and retired government or military officials with official observers. It also might be necessary to frame the issues generically rather than specifically to the U.S.-Chinese relationship. As with Russia, there would be no need to produce a consensus report.
Stretching the U.S.-Chinese Envelope
The time is not ripe for traditional bilateral arms control negotiations aimed at legally binding, verifiable agreements between Beijing and Washington, let alone trilateral negotiations involving Moscow. U.S. officials will be absorbed over the coming year with negotiating a follow-on to START, while outside experts are only beginning to think beyond a bilateral U.S.-Russian arms control process. Chinese officials continue to assert that the United States and Russia bear the immediate burden for nuclear disarmament, while opposing the type of hard nuclear transparency that would be essential for formal treaty negotiations. The eventual ripeness of legally binding arms control agreements also will depend on pursuing negotiations cooperatively rather than in the very adversarial style that characterized much of the U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian arms control experience.
Multilateral efforts, such as working to achieve the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and to reach agreement on a treaty setting limits on fissile material production for nuclear weapons, are valuable for Beijing and Washington. In particular, ratification of the CTBT by both countries would be the most dramatic means by which they could implement their nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT. Their ratification would create significant momentum for the CTBT's entry into force, helping to strengthen support for the NPT and for nonproliferation actions by the NPT's many non-nuclear-weapon states. These nuclear risk reduction initiatives, however, address only one part of the overall U.S.-Chinese strategic relationship. By contrast, more thinking is needed on the potential contributions of other cooperative activities, including actions aimed at eventually bringing China into an arms control process involving the United States, Russia, and China.
As with Russia, one step would be for U.S. officials to brief Chinese officials on the results of the NPR, if not also to exchange views with them formally or informally as the process proceeds. From a Chinese perspective, exchanges on the NPR could provide a potentially irresistible incentive for eliciting Chinese thinking on their own strategic thinking, programs, and plans. Even if such exchanges during the process are ruled out, Chinese officials will be highly attuned to the NPR results and to how China will be treated in it. Better for them to hear the answer officially and accurately from the United States than via leaks and third-party descriptions.
As already noted, given mutual uncertainties about each other's strategic plans, programs, and intentions, there is a danger of growing U.S.-Chinese offense-defense arms competition in the years ahead. Parallel national undertakings-i.e., those pursued in coordination but without a formal treaty commitment-by the United States and China could be part of the overall approach to avoid that outcome. One relevant historical precedent is the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991, which committed the United States and Russia to withdraw ground-launched and ship-based nonstrategic nuclear weapons to their national territories and destroy them. U.S.-Chinese coordinated national undertakings could be used to set out limits on U.S. missile defenses and Chinese strategic offenses. In turn, should the United States and Russia follow up a new START by negotiating legally binding limits to regulate their own future offenses and defenses, one important issue would be how to involve Beijing in that process. China could be encouraged to associate itself with that agreement by accepting restraints on its own strategic offensive capabilities in parallel with U.S. and Russian restraints on their offenses and defenses.
Planning for Nuclear Abolition
Speaking in Prague on April 5, Obama declared "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" and later stated that the United States would host a Global Summit on Nuclear Security within the next year. This U.S. pledge followed British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's March statement that the "recognized nuclear weapon states must show unity and leadership" on nuclear disarmament. A year before, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had set out French thinking on an "action plan" for the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, including agreement on transparency measures.
Dialogue among these five countries on the goal of nuclear abolition will assuredly accelerate in the months ahead. As part of that dialogue, U.S. officials could not only encourage or support joint studies and experiments but also explore possible development of an action plan for nuclear disarmament.
Joint Studies and Experiments
The United Kingdom has already conducted its own technical assessment of verification of nuclear disarmament and is cooperating with Norway to address monitored dismantlement of nuclear warheads. It has proposed an assessment by the five NPT nuclear-weapon states of the technical conditions of nuclear disarmament. Such a study would be a good next step. In addition, it could be broadened over time to entail examination of the political, military, and legal conditions for nuclear abolition and how they might be brought about. Another possible step would be an analysis of technical options for the monitored storage, dismantlement, and disposition of nuclear warheads. How best to engage the non-NPT nuclear-weapon states in the nuclear disarmament process also could be assessed. The format, participants, and product of such studies would be shaped by what the five governments are prepared to support initially and over time. As this process of interaction continued, they then could undertake a joint experiment on the monitored storage of nuclear warheads prior to their elimination.
The time has come for a favorable response to Sarkozy's call for agreed transparency measures. Obstacles exist, not least Chinese "transparency skepticism." But greater transparency, even if put in place incrementally, is an essential building block toward the goal of nuclear abolition. With that in mind, the Obama administration should declare its support for the Sarkozy proposal. One approach would be for the nuclear-weapon states to exchange views on the full set of soft and hard transparency measures, the benefits and risks of those measures, and possible ways to mitigate perceived risks. Their goal would be to identify incremental transparency actions acceptable to each of them. This process would also provide the basis for a joint transparency initiative at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.
Nuclear Abolition Action Plan
Finally, the five countries should pursue their own action plan for nuclear abolition. This plan would include a reaffirmation of the goal, discussion of conditions for nuclear abolition, identification of building blocks, and specific objectives for action over the next decade. If agreement were reached, this action plan could be presented at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Even if agreement proves too tough, the process of engagement would help demonstrate the countries' commitment to their Article VI nuclear disarmament obligations, prepare them for the give-and-take at the review conference, and pave the way for later action.
The Obama administration has moved swiftly to take arms control out of the "cold storage" where it was relegated by the Bush administration. The primary focus of the new administration has rightly been on resetting the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship and on negotiating a replacement for START. The administration also has acted to reinvigorate the strategic dialogue with China, while signaling support for a wider nuclear dialogue among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states.
In pursuing these goals, U.S. officials can draw on a rich array of other cooperative security activities, in addition to strategic dialogue or negotiated agreements. Within this expanded arms control toolbox, some of these complementary activities are more "ready to go" than others. The many possibilities for joint studies and, to a somewhat lesser degree, joint experiments stand out. Other activities would stretch the envelope of existing cooperation, including new ways to institutionalize defense and military engagement between the United States and Russia and between the United States and China. Still others would break with long-ingrained thinking, whether pursuing soft transparency among the nuclear-weapon states or ongoing exchanges by the United States with Russia and China on the NPR. Several activities would build on past precedents but in very different ways, perhaps best typified by joint U.S.-Russian-NATO missile defenses. Also in this category is the use of parallel coordinated national undertakings to lessen the risk of U.S.-Chinese offense-defense competition and to begin to integrate China into the bilateral U.S.-Russian arms control process.
The bottom line of this analysis can be stated quite simply: as part of an expanded arms control toolbox, many different cooperative security activities can contribute to reshaping the U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese strategic relationships successfully, as well as building habits of cooperation among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states. U.S. officials and their counterparts in other countries should take advantage of the full spectrum of these activities.
Lewis A. Dunn, a senior vice president of Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), served as assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and ambassador for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the Reagan administration. The views herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of SAIC or any of its sponsoring organizations.
2. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, "Joint Statement by Dmitriy A. Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, and Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, Regarding Negotiations on Further Reductions of Strategic Offensive Arms," April 1, 2009.
7. On Chinese attitudes, see Lewis A. Dunn et al., "Foreign Perspectives on U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture," December 2006 (report prepared for the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office, Defense Threat Reduction Agency).
12. "Verification of Nuclear Disarmament: Final Report on Studies Into the Verification of Nuclear Warheads and Their Components," NPT/CONF.2005/WP.1, April 18, 2005 (working paper submitted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
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