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Diplomacy Theater
With Iran and North Korea, we need more matter and less art.


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Last week saw two new episodes in the opera buffa of modern American diplomacy. The Six-Party Talks on North Korea suffered a brief relapse in Beijing (just long enough for the U.S. to get slapped in the face) and the Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran, (but not really). Our diplomats are becoming what Oscar Wilde might call “ornamental creatures.” They don’t have much to say, but it sounds charming. In the process, they are making an exposition of how absurd diplomacy can be when divorced from a real strategy.

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The talks in Beijing ostensibly broke down because Pyongyang demanded as a precondition that the U.S. lift certain financial sanctions we orchestrated after discovering an elaborate North Korean counterfeiting and money-laundering operation late in 2005. Pyongyang’s demand was simply blackmail. And to make sure there was no mistake, North Korea intimated that it plans a second nuclear test soon, thus proving not only that it has nukes, but that it has nukes to spare.

Sadly, in North Korea’s case, little else could be expected. Its nuclear breakout is an accomplished fact, and now we need to brace for full-scale nuclear blackmail — precisely what we knew would happen if we didn’t solve the problem in 1995. North Korea already holds both Tokyo and Seoul hostage. It will soon be in a position to extort not only regime-sustaining financial support, but also strategic concessions such as an end to the U.S. — South Korea alliance and a free hand to wrestle the south into a posture of submission. The current diplomatic “strategy” pinned all hope on one of two things proving true: that either (a) there is some enticement extravagant enough to convince Kim Jong-Il to give up his weapons programs, or (b) if not, that the Chinese can pressure North Korea to change course. Both premises have plainly proven false. The talks no longer have any basis in logic. Having failed to defend the nonproliferation regime, we now need to prepare for damage control and hope for the best.

In the case of Iran, on the other hand, a nuclear breakout can still be prevented — by a logical diplomatic strategy. To imagine what such a strategy might look like, imagine the exact opposite of what we have now. The current strategy combines a transparent tactical posture of inaction in the short term with strategic ambiguity in the long term. Formally speaking, this is the weakest possible posture short of explicit surrender. The incremental diplomatic progression guarantees Iran that there will be no consequences in the short term for the next several steps it takes in its nuclear program. The formulation “all options remain on the table,” the classic expression of strategic ambiguity, is thus emasculated of any real value. We are giving Iran every reason to think we won’t do anything to stop them now, and no reason to think we will ever do anything at all.

What we need is the reverse: tactical ambiguity combined with strategic transparency. Our message should be that in the end, the current regime will not be allowed to get nukes, and the hammer could fall at any moment, regardless what the current state of any “talks.”

What has been lost in the era of United Nations diplomacy (i.e., since the fall of the Soviet Union) is a keen sense of the balance-of-power in situations where maintaining the status quo is indispensable to national security. It is ironic that those who profess to believe in “containment” seem not to grasp that containment normally requires a highly aggressive posture — every aggressive move on your adversary’s part must trigger an equal and at least opposite reaction on your part. Unfortunately this way of thinking, so fundamental in the centuries following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, has been largely replaced by the Sensitive-New-Age-Guy vocabulary of U.N. rules. But as Truman warned, these rules have a high potential for becoming “a trap for the innocent and an invitation to the guilty.”

The U.S. suceeds when it acts directly — with allies if possible and alone if necessary. North Korea bailed on last week’s talks because Washington (not the U.N.) refused to lift financial sanctions. Iran’s oil minister recently admitted that sources of energy-sector project-financing were drying up worldwide, due as much to U.S. pressure as to the tension of the standoff itself. On the other hand, U.S. deference to formal multilateral mechanisms has yielded nearly nothing.

In North Korea, it is already too late to do anything except hold our breath and hope the regime falls before something terrible happens. But in Iran, we should be pursuing an aggressive balance-of-power foreign policy. Every step that Iran takes in its nuclear development is an act of strategic aggression and should be met with an opposite and at least equal reaction. Without firing a shot, the U.S. has many options for encroaching on Iran’s perimeters and making life increasingly uncomfortable for the mullahs.

Towards the end of the Cold War, when the Reagan administration was negotiating with the Soviet Union for sweeping reductions in nuclear forces, we weren’t in the Security Council playing Model U.N., paralyzed by a delusion of impotence. We were cruising destroyers less than 12 miles of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. What we are doing now isn’t diplomacy. It is diplomacy theater.

— Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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