The Limits of Leading by Example
President Global Zero is learning the hard way that cutting back America’s nuclear weapons arsenal doesn't cut the mustard with rogue states.
The current standoff over North Korea's nuclear ambitions qualifies, I believe, as the first foreign-policy crisis that has completely stumped U.S. President Barack Obama's conservative adversaries. (Just compare, say, the way the National Review talks about North Korea with the way it talks about Iran.) The obvious reason for this is that the standard right-wing response to confrontation with small, aggressive states -- bombs away! -- does not apply when the state in question already has nuclear weapons. But the other reason is that the combination of gunboat diplomacy, bolstered anti-missile defense, and finely calibrated rhetoric with which Obama has responded to North Korea's latest nuclear test bears not even a whiff of the mushy, universalistic stuff that conservatives despise -- that is, nonproliferation.
The current standoff over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions qualifies, I believe, as the first foreign-policy crisis that has completely stumped U.S. President Barack Obama’s conservative adversaries. (Just compare, say, the way the National Review talks about North Korea with the way it talks about Iran.) The obvious reason for this is that the standard right-wing response to confrontation with small, aggressive states — bombs away! — does not apply when the state in question already has nuclear weapons. But the other reason is that the combination of gunboat diplomacy, bolstered anti-missile defense, and finely calibrated rhetoric with which Obama has responded to North Korea’s latest nuclear test bears not even a whiff of the mushy, universalistic stuff that conservatives despise — that is, nonproliferation.
Of course, those of us who actually believe in that soft stuff and think it can serve the hard purpose of advancing America’s national security are left with a question: What good is the president’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation if it’s useless in a genuine nuclear crisis? That commitment may have helped the U.S. gain consensus behind harsh U.N. sanctions against North Korea, but the sanctions’ only observable effect is that they have made North Korea’s leaders really, really mad. The only country with leverage is China, and China’s leaders have publicly said that they don’t even feel comfortable with the existing sanctions. Right now, The Mouse That Roared is keeping the world at bay.
The logic of nonproliferation policy is that the world is no longer threatened by the giant stockpiles of the two great nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, but rather by the prospect of nuclear proliferation among smaller reckless states and nonstate actors. The only way Washington can build a global consensus to check proliferation is to adhere to the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls on nuclear-weapons states to phase out their stockpiles. Obama has, accordingly, negotiated the New START agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear armaments and has rewritten America’s nuclear doctrine to place less dependence on the nuclear force. In his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, Obama asserted that a new policy of restraint and reduction could not only contribute to reciprocal measures by key states including Russia and China, but "could also facilitate closer cooperation by those two countries with the United States on measures to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism."
At the time, administration officials admitted to me that they did not know whether that would prove to be true. Gary Samore, the former White House arms control chief and now executive director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, argues that the evidence is now in. "Our ability to rally effective diplomacy and economic pressure," he told me this week, "has been assisted by the president’s demonstration of his commitment to the restructuring of the number and role of U.S. nuclear weapons." Samore admits, however, that this proposition is more demonstrable in the case of Iran, on which Obama was able to persuade Russia to vote for tough U.N. sanctions immediately after signing New START, than it is with North Korea.
It’s hardly clear, however, that the Russians were influenced by Obama’s pledge to abide by the terms of the NPT. The problem is that a commitment to rule-abidingness seems to impress only the states that already put great store in international rules, and Washington is not worried about what Denmark might get up to. One of the chief targets of Obama’s policy was the major non-nuclear states, like Brazil. James Acton, an arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that these countries have consistently refused to "put some skin in the game" by, say, standing alongside Obama and endorsing the nonproliferation agenda, rationalizing their reluctance by pointing to Washington’s failure to adopt the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and other measures. Acton takes the view that the deal of nuclear reductions in exchange for action on nonproliferation remains unproven.
On this, as on so many subjects, the great question is Beijing, which right now seems less interested in playing by the international rules than in rewriting them, at least on national security issues. A recent analysis of thousands of articles in the Chinese press concluded that China’s political and intellectual leaders see the nonproliferation agenda as a stalking horse for the West’s goals of containing China and provoking regime change in unfriendly countries, and view nuclear proliferation as less of a threat to their interests than America’s alleged ambition to dominate Asia. Chinese writers generally empathize with North Korea’s drive to gain nuclear capacity in the face of implacable Western opposition, and they often depict the conflict as one between "U.S. hegemonic interests and North Korea’s security interests," as two Chinese scholars put it.
The study’s author, Lora Saalman, concludes that China will confront North Korea or Iran only when doing so plainly advances its narrow interests. But North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, has issued such wild threats to South Korea and the United States — to the world, for that matter — that China’s leaders have begun to question their role as his sole source of support. That doesn’t mean they are about to sign up to a Western campaign of isolation. As China’s English-language daily Global Times recently wrote, "China is bound to adjust its North Korean policies, but it doesn’t mean it will side with the US, Japan and South Korea. Rather, it will respond to the North’s extreme moves which offend China’s interests and will make the North correct its moves."
This doesn’t mean that the nonproliferation agenda was a mistake — far from it. Reducing America’s nuclear arsenal and changing its doctrine would make sense even if doing so had no effect on anyone else’s behavior. And on crucial issues like eliminating the clandestine trade in nuclear equipment and material, Washington can’t lead so long as it is seen as a scofflaw. Indeed, in 2010, Obama was able to modestly strengthen the NPT’s enforcement provisions.
But the coin of rule-abidingness has not bought as much cooperation, from as many actors, as the president had hoped. As with "engagement" policy generally, Obama has found that better U.S. behavior brings applause from predictable corners (i.e., Europe) without necessarily encouraging refractory actors — the ones Washington really worries about — to change their ways. This has been one of the elemental lessons of the last four years.
Obama no longer expects to persuade his adversaries, whether in North Korea or Iran (or the U.S. Congress). Indeed, his policy toward Iran has increasingly come to resemble that of George W. Bush, with punishing sanctions designed to force Tehran to relinquish its program of uranium enrichment. Of course, this isn’t working either, as the collapse of the lat
est round of talks, in Kazakhstan, demonstrates. After all, if the underlying lesson is that states will do what they see as being in their interests, the Iranians can hardly be blamed for refusing to surrender their nuclear program in exchange for nothing more than a modest relaxation of sanctions, which is the offer now on the table. Obama has so far refused to offer more, and in 2010, when Turkey and Brazil, two major non-nuclear states, actually tried their own diplomatic bid to end Iran’s nuclear program — which sounds very much in the spirit of the new nonproliferation regime — the president swatted them down.
Obama is now laying off the soft stuff and winning some grudging credit for it among hard-liners. On North Korea, there’s no meaningful alternative. But on Iran, there just might be. I hope the president still has something up his sleeve.
James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1
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