Much as the obvious partisanship of American foreign policy continues, with conservatives who would likely be deriding alternative universe Clintonian hawkishness on North Korea now singing Trump’s praises as he threatens ‘fire and fury’ on Pyongyang while liberals in the media currently panicking about nuclear war but which would probably have been applauding ‘strong leadership’ as Hillary prepares in an alternative universe to once again ‘run up the gut’, I think there is a thorough bi-partisan criticism that can be made right now involving weapons of mass destruction and our perception of their proliferation.
In other words, the party leader here is not a significant factor in a country’s likelihood to use weapons of mass destruction as a bargaining chip, but rather the overall mainstream trend of recent US foreign policy. This is a process that began a long time ago, when George W Bush gave his now infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in which, using the militarism of the immediate post-9/11 world, he justified a singling out of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as major threats to world stability and the proliferation of WMD’s to non-state actors. This speech was likely intended to assist paving the way on the many causes belli being constructed for Iraq’s transparently imminent invasion as well as to use as a talking point against the other two states. In the end, it would fail spectacularly on all of these fronts.
First, Iraq had no WMD’s of note. Delusional fantasies of certain tortured conservative nerds aside, Iraq had been effectively neutered by Gulf War I and the subsequent No-Fly Zone. Having wisely been left by the first Bush administration as a rump buffer against Iranian influence, the invasion by US and Coalition forces only succeeded in removing this buffer and giving Iran a free hand in the region. The inevitable chaos that followed, and Iran’s newfound ability to directly strike at US forces using its own proxies and spec ops meant that the US would also be too bogged down to do anything effectual against the Iranians. Additionally, they temporarily ratcheted up their nuclear power program as a bargaining chip which would serve them well later. North Korea, which had been previously working on getting nuclear materials from Pakistan then decided to speed up their own weapons program and loudly proclaim its successes (something which was quite debatable at the time). They saw it as actually because Iraq had no WMD’s that it was subject to a regime change invasion. Against the immense power of the United States on a rampage, only such weapons could provide the necessary deterrence. North Korea, wisely and rationally, became a nuclear power for the same reason anyone would-it becomes a guarantee of regime survival and sovereignty. It was either that or keep their existence by sacrificing autonomy to Beijing in exchange for more overt protection.
So in the end it was USA vs Axis of Evil, 1-2. Axis victory. Iran gained significant power in the Middle East, and North Korea got a ticket out of the threat of imminent invasion. Given this track record, it was no wonder that many small countries that felt threatened by the US gave their moral support to Iran and North Korea in the early and mid Oughts. Zimbabwe and Cuba jumped on the bandwagon overtly, and Pakistan started accelerating its dangerous double-game in Afghanistan. The problem was that none of these countries really posed a direct threat to core US security interests, yet the many in the media, think tank world, and foreign policy establishment who can think little outside of a certain framework of reference in strategy built them up to be gigantic threats. All of this was done by ignoring that much of the increased saber rattling on behalf of these countries was given a boost in the wake of the Iraq War and the subsequent bogging down of US effort in the Middle East. This was a process that would only accelerate after the Arab Spring, which was made doubly noteworthy due to the fact that no policy maker talked seriously of regime change in Libya before they gave up their chemical weapons stockpiles, but the Arab spring happened after. In that instance the two issues may not have been connected, but to many observers it would certainly not seem so. And another country whose present predicaments make we wonder how much of its population wish it had not disarmed its stockpiles is Ukraine, for obvious reasons.
This is not to say that North Korea’s upping the ante to this extreme is good or wise. Far from it. By firing missiles into Japanese sovereign waters they have been tempting pan-regional fate with a cavalier attitude which deserves some response and castigation. But their actions are no more irrational than anyone else’s in this current standoff.
In my time as an academic I engaged with many theories of International Relations from a variety of directions. On base, the one I found generally most useful for explaining what was going on in state-state interactions was Neoclassical Realism-a theory that postulates that regime survival by the governing elites is the key to understanding decisions made in foreign policy. Usually this requires an understanding of the history of a country, the issues its people consider vital to the security and integrity of the state, and how the ruling class legitimizes itself. In this case, North Korea’s governing elite holds the stalwart battle against American hegemony on the Korean peninsula as well as resistance to Japanese regional power to be part of its core justification with the masses. In Pyongyang’s eyes, they are what stands against attempts to bring the North under the same ‘puppet’ regime as the south is under. It is important to keep this in mind. It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes the way Washington behaves acts as a catalyst for nations seeking sovereignty guarantees in the form of nuclear weapons. Regime survival drives most actors, and the more unstable or comparatively weak the country, the more it will drive them.
The problem comes up when a country’s key legitimacy policies start to conflict with its actual interest. I would say that North Korea’s blatant testing affecting waters not their own is truly a dangerous catalyst which once day they may not be able to contain. But I would also point out that as the reining hegemonic power, the United States has very little to gain from picking these fights with countries whose weight on the geopolitical scale is almost nil. There is a Lanyard Class that reaches for military solutions to everything first, but why court such risk when diplomacy from a position of strength can do more with less danger? The military in such a hegemonic position should be reserved as a conventional deterrent and not a first option.
Personally, though I see little desire in either Beijing or Washington to deal with this issue in the long term as it might mean sacrificing their influence on each half of Korea, but it is my hope that one day both powers can come to a far-sighted agreement regarding the Korean peninsula. I believe this would entail a reunification under the South but with the North’s political party left as a legal entity and a declaration that Korea would be unified as a neutral power, securing China’s landward Pacific border by the withdrawal of US military presence and also ending the threat of a PLA invasion from the north. The unified Korea would have a painful development and integration process, so the space of neutrality between powers would be welcome for them. This neutrality would have to allow in foreign investment and trade as that would be the pay off for both powers giving up more direct forms of influence. A Switzerland of sorts in th East Asian Littoral.
I think this could be done, given the political will. But its that, on all sides, I find lacking.
In the meanwhile, try not to get caught up in the…Crossfire.