“Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.” Today the United States announced the current administration will ignore the principles of its own misstated maxim and bet much of its legacy on the trustworthiness of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Somewhere John Bolton must be pulling his moustache off. No other world leader has a history of breaking agreements with U.S. administrations to match that of Kim Jong-Il. He is the master of what is known as “selling the same horse twice” – the practice of taking payment for a good or service and then demanding a second payment before rendering what is due. North Korea has sold the international community on nuclear transparency and disarmament more times than one can count, but never has delivered. And yet, once again, the United States is reaching for its wallet.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set forth the foundations of the administration’s decision in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “Diplomacy is Working on North Korea.” She asked, “What if North Korea cheats? The answer is simple: We will hold North Korea accountable.” Doing so would surprise everyone, for the United States has not yet held North Korea accountable for any of its promise-breaking or treaty violations. She continued, “We will reimpose any applicable sanctions that we have waived – plus add new ones.” In strategy terms, this means the United States will allow North Korea to replenish its stores of many of the items denied under sanctions, build stockpiles, and then break the agreement again when it feels ready to accept the pain of sanctions. Finally, she offered, “And because North Korea would be violating an agreement not only with us, but also with all of its neighbors, those countries would take appropriate measures as well.” In other words, the United States has failed to take “appropriate measures” for such a long time that its own threats to do so are no longer credible. They must be backed instead by the enforcement of other Great Powers.
This is a disgraceful admission from the world’s remaining superpower. Combine the new policy with the emergence of an Iranian nuclear program and it becomes clear that post-Cold War administrations have utterly and abysmally failed to deter nuclear proliferation in two of the world’s most dangerous nations. This says much about the limits of unilateralism, the absence of effective U.S. leadership, and the realities of an international community that has been largely content with allowing the United States to take on the tough post-Cold War challenges while refusing to follow its lead or lend substantial assistance to its efforts. There are, of course, notable exceptions such as the United Kingdom and Australia, but honorable exceptions do not excuse the complacent majority.
The post-Cold War period began with comparisons to the post-Second World War years, in which the United States addressed emerging challenges with large-scale multilateral structures (the United Nations and NATO), clear ideals (liberty v. totalitarian oppression), and hard-headed realism (containment and nuclear agreements). The fall of the Berlin Wall represented the promise of a New World Order earned by the triumph of a global liberal international society and its superpower champion. The post-Cold War period is coming to an end, and the comparisons have shifted to the frustrations of an ineffective League of Nations, the weak-willed appeasement of Germany at Munich, and unwillingness to fully recognize that the debate over isolationism and neutrality is over. The United States is fighting two shooting wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), one ideological war (fundamentalist terrorism), and one nascent and unrecognized cyberwar with a nation that holds the potential of someday challenging and perhaps surpassing the United States in overall international power (China). Domestic economic comparisons have switched from measuring the heights of the Roman and British empires to recalling the 1970s “days of malaise.” Once again the United States finds its economic power hobbled by the world energy market and its people fretting over their personal financial futures. U.S. leaders continue to borrow heavily from foreign nations and their children and grandchildren to try to shore up the nation's crumbling economy.
All of this adds up to a United States that no longer appears to have the ability to deter smaller powers from pursuing nuclear ambitions. Today’s announcement on North Korea is an admission of the dangerous overall frailty of U.S. international power. Diplomacy backed by weakness is the surest route to policy failure. The United States needs to rebuild its power and do so quickly, or accept a world in which its legacy of failure places its citizens, and the world at large, in grave peril.