We accomplished a great deal in our first years in office in slowing the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology. As we dealt with North Korea, particularly throughout 2007 and 2008, the president would sometimes refer to one of those accomplishments — getting the Libyans to turn over their nuclear materials — and say he was looking for the North Koreans to have their “Qaddafi moment.” That is what we all hoped to achieve, and I don’t believe the president himself ever lost sight of that as the objective. But I think Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary Chris Hill did. For them, the agreement seemed to become the objective, and we ended up with a clear setback in our nonproliferation efforts.
In early 2001 the president had it exactly right when he decided to set a new course for dealing with North Korea and made other countries, most importantly China, a part of the negotiations. When our diplomats began meeting bilaterally with the North Koreans again, sometimes in contravention of official instructions, China was essentially sidelined, as were our allies the Japanese and the South Koreans. We missed a number of important opportunities to use our leverage to get them to play a more constructive role. There is no question that the challenge of North Korea’s nuclear program was one of the toughest we faced during our time in office. As we worked to meet this challenge, I wish the president had been better served by his State Department team.
The story of our diplomacy with North Korea, particularly in the second term of the Bush presidency, carries with it important lessons for American leaders and diplomats of the future. First is the importance of not losing sight of the objective. In this case, the president had made clear that our goal was getting the North Koreans to give up their nuclear-weapons program. However, as negotiations proceeded, the State Department came to regard getting the North Koreans to agree to something, indeed anything, as the ultimate objective. That mistake led our diplomats to respond to Pyongyang’s intransigence and dishonesty with ever-greater concessions, thereby encouraging duplicity and double-dealing. And in the end it led them to recommend we accept an agreement that didn’t accomplish the president’s goal and even set it back. A good model for future leaders is Ronald Reagan’s approach at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev in 1986. He wasn’t so desperate for an agreement that he would take whatever he could get. He would not concede America’s right to missile defense, and when the Soviets refused to grant that point, he ended the talks.
This leads to the second and related lesson. The most effective diplomacy happens when America negotiates from a position of strength. If we remember that our ultimate goal is the substantive one of denuclearization and we are willing to walk away rather than accept a partial, untrue, or damaging agreement, we are in a much stronger position. At the same time, if our adversaries understand we will not compromise on fundamental principles and that we will use military force if necessary, they are much more likely to do business at the negotiating table. That is why I argued that we should have taken action ourselves to destroy the North Korean–built nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert. It would have sent an unmistakable message to the Syrians, the Iranians, and the North Koreans that our words meant something, that we would not tolerate the proliferation of nuclear technology. Such a message might well have encouraged those nations to take advantage of the opportunity to reach a diplomatic agreement rather than risk military action. The effect of U.S. military action was seen clearly, for example, when Moammar Qaddafi watched the United States liberate Iraq and then called to say he’d like to give up his nuclear-weapons program.