Peace Without Relief

9 Mar

North Korea Steps up Rhetoric: How Far Will it Push?The United Nations continues its campaign to convince xenophobic conservatives it is really toothless, by sanctioning North Korea.

On Thursday March 7, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 2094, imposing a new round of sanctions against North Korea in response to its underground nuclear test last month. The penalties include some measures we have seen in the past–such as designating individuals and companies–but also some new curbs on North Korean trade and financial transactions, and potentially even on diplomatic shenanigans as well. The  bottom line question is whether this new sanctions package is likely to contribute ending the North’s provocative behavior.


It goes  without saying that sanctions alone will not. They can only buy time. Given the  modesty of this package and North Korea’s apparent determination to build its  nuclear and missile programs, regrettably, UNSC 2094 is unlikely to have a  great effect.

Joshua Stanton grudgingly admits the same.

As I read this resolution, I’ll be asking myself what the objective is.  Is it really to end North Korea’s nuclear program, or is it just to make it a little less convenient for North Korea to cheat for another year or so?  If your objective is the former, nothing short of putting the North Korean economy into what amounts to international receivership will do it.  If the latter, then we’re still on the same trajectory we’ve been on since at least 2006, and we can all see where that leads.  It will mean more rounds of whack-a-mole, whereby a sanctions committee receives a report on some prohibited activity, spends two months investigating it, spends another eight months fighting Chinese stalling and blocking, and finally adds a few suspect individuals and entities to some list long after they’ve moved on and folded up their booths.

To be effective, sanctions have to be (1) comprehensive enough to cover all sources of North Korean funds that could be used for prohibited purposes, (2) flexible enough to catch fly-by-night operators, (3) burden-shifting, such that the burden is on North Korea to prove the permissible use of the funds.

Seoul responded “sternly“. The White House – not so much.

The US urged North Korea to resist “further provocative actions” on Friday after Pyongyang vowed to cancel a non-aggression pact with South Korea and planned to disconnect a crisis hotline in retaliation for a new round of sanctions.

The White House plea came as North Korea ramped up its bellicose warnings. A senior North Korean military figure was quoted on Friday as saying that troops had been mobilised and inter-continental ballistic missiles placed on standby.

Washington, anxious to avoid adding to the over-heated rhetoric, opted for a relatively muted response. Asked at the daily White House briefing about North Korea’s threats, the deputy press spokesman John Earnest read out a carefully prepared statement: “North Korea’s threats are not helpful. We have consistently called on North Korea to improve relations with its neighbours, including South Korea. This is a moment for the North to seize the opportunity presented by a new government in Seoul, not to threaten it.

The rest is just frustration, of living in a world where ordinary citizens either are unemployed, or live in gulags, and nothing ever seems to get done to change that. This touches on what Stephen M. Walt offers as “inconvenient truths“.

#1: “We’re never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons.” U.S. presidents have talked about disarmament since the beginning of the nuclear age. According to the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, we’re formally committed to “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” It has even become fashionable for retired foreign policy experts like George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger to call for eliminating nuclear weapons too (even though they would have strenuously opposed such actions while in office) and of course Barack Obama made some speeches about it early in his presidency. And now some folks are trying to make a big deal about Chuck Hagel‘s involvement with Global Zero, a respectable international campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons.

But let’s get serious for a minute. Although the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile sharply since the end of the Cold War, it still has thousands either on active deployment or in reserve. Nobody in power is seriously advocating getting rid of all of them anytime soon, and even modest reductions (such as those stipulated by the most recent arms control treaty with Russia) are politically controversial. U.S. leaders have to pay lip service to the goal of total disarmament, and a few of them might privately favor it, but they understand that these weapons are the ultimate deterrent and that the United States isn’t going to give them all up until it is confident that there is no conceivable scenario in which it might want them. Which means: not in my lifetime, or yours.

#2: “We don’t actually care that much about human rights.” Presidents, diplomats, and other politicians talk about human rights all the time, and both Congress and the Executive Branch often bully small countries over their human rights performance, especially when we have other differences with them). But when human rights concerns conflict with other interests, our ethical concerns take a back seat nearly every time. Most Americans didn’t care  when the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis (many of them children), and none of the senior officials who authorized torture during the Bush administration has faced indictment or even serious investigation (Just imagine how much we’d be howling if we suspected some foreign government had been waterboarding captive Americans!). The United States has plenty of allies whose human rights performance ranges from questionable to awful, and we continue to trade and invest in China despite its own lax human rights standards. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. government is totally indifferent to such concerns, of course; what I’m saying is that we are rarely willing to do very much or pay significant costs in order to advance human rights, unless our strategic interests run parallel. Like most countries, in short, we talk a better game on human rights than we actually deliver. But you’re not going to hear many American politicians admit it.

This inability to face reality is compounded by the American propensity to “personalize” foreign policy.

One of the bigger flaws in U.S. foreign policy is the tendency that many Americans have to identify U.S. relationships with other countries with individual leaders, no matter whether it happens to be a leader that is deemed pro-American or anti. This inevitably warps the understanding of the two countries’ common interests, because the focus on the ideology or personality of the individual leader causes us to ignore or overlook where the two countries’ interests overlap and where they genuinely diverge. That causes many Americans to conflate U.S. interests with the continued political success of the “pro-American” leader, as Saakashvili’s fans did during the Georgian parliamentary election, or to conflate them with the success of the political opposition to an unfriendly regime, as many hawks did in response to the last Iranian presidential election. It’s important to recognize that changes in local political leadership usually don’t have dramatic or sudden changes in any country’s foreign policy for good or ill, so as a rule the U.S. shouldn’t be particularly invested in or committed to one election outcome rather than another.

The dangers of personalizing foreign policy can cut both ways. If one leader is vilified for his hostility to the U.S., a pro-American leader can be credited with beliefs and qualities that he doesn’t have, which in turn can blind us to the flaws of the new leader and warp the relationship with the other country in equally harmful ways. Many Americans prefer foreign leaders to be either a Chavez or a Saakashvili, and both types of leaders give Americans the opportunity to project their own preoccupations and ideological obsessions onto other nations. Perhaps these types are appealing to so many because leaders that define themselves or allow themselves to be defined by their view of America remind many Americans of the way they thought the world worked during the Cold War. Saakashvili and Chavez gave Cold War nostalgics an excuse to revert back to patterns of thinking and behavior that haven’t been relevant in twenty years. That has encouraged them to make the internal political disagreements of other nations into contests about America, when they often have nothing or almost nothing to do with us.

So, instead of looking at this depressing recurrence of the same events as an Appalachian feud, Americans need to look at interests, not power. Deterring North Korea and maintaining a viable South Korea is enough. If Americans want to fret vainly about human rights, then there are plenty of measures the United States can take to help Americans feel better about themselves, like reconsidering the War on Anything That Says “Boo!” Or, the U.S. could have a human rights-based foreign policy. Without these confidence-building measures, I have NO confidence that the destabilization or collapse of the Kim regime wouldn’t create a disaster, perhaps even war itself. It’s not that I like North Korea. It’s that I prefer order to revenge.




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