The best way to defuse nuclear tension

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: February 16 2007

When John Bolton cries foul, I tend to cheer up. This week the former US ambassador to the United Nations rebuked the White House for putting its signature to a six-party accord freezing North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. George W. Bush’s administration is beginning to get some things right.

The deal, brokered by China but negotiated between the US and North Korea, could yet fracture. History warns against investing much confidence in the word of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader. A freeze in Pyongyang’s nuclear activities in return for deliveries of fuel oil does not guarantee a durable settlement.

Pessimists (they may, I admit, turn out to be realists) have noted the striking similarities with the arrangements negotiated by Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994. That too promised a halt to the nuclear programme in return for energy aid. The deal eventually fell apart amid evidence Pyongyang had built an illicit plutonium production facility.

There is an important difference. This time the initial freeze-for-aid provisions have been fixed in a broad strategic context. The regional, political and diplomatic dimensions of the latest accord are what really matter. The careful choreography planned for the next 60 days is calculated to set a path to a complete normalisation of relations.

Aside from a bilateral understanding between Washington and Pyongyang these subsequent steps envisage a thaw between North Korea and Japan, a peace treaty to end formally the Korea war and the establishment of permanent security arrangements for the region. A one-dimensional negotiation about weapons, in other words, has given way to an effort to create a series of mutually stabilising regional relationships.

There are big prizes here. Most obviously, North Korea’s de-nuclearisation would greatly reduce the pressures on other regional actors to acquire the bomb. It would thus restore a modicum of credibility to the battered nuclear non-proliferation regime. Potentially, it would also offer a template for the application of effective multilateralism to crises elsewhere in the world. Iran springs to mind.

All this, of course, is anathema to Mr Bolton. He called the agreement a charade. By making concessions to Pyongyang, he said, the US was encouraging other would-be nuclear states. Mr Bush, in other words, had given in to threats. The mullahs in Tehran would take note.

On one level, Mr Bolton is right. The terms of this week’s deal would almost certainly have been available to Washington three or four years ago – at about the time, say, North Korea was designated, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an axis of evil. That phrase has now disappeared from the White House lexicon, as has regime change. So the US has indeed changed its position. No doubt, it was influenced by Pyongyang’s detonation last autumn of a crude nuclear device.

For its part, Mr Bolton’s brand of diplomacy starts and ends with coercion. It says America should use its unrivalled power to bend others to its will. Negotiation is for wimps. The US can best achieve its ends by deploying force – economic, financial and military. Why compromise?

The decision to invade Iraq was rooted in this mindset. The “demonstration” effect of regime change in Baghdad, the calculation had it, would force other rogue states into line. To be fair, Mr Bolton can claim one significant victory in this respect – Libya did give up unconventional weapons.

The analysis was nonetheless flawed from the outset. Mr Bolton’s unilateralism was always destined to invite others to counter US power – to balance US primacy with rising anti-Americanism. As things have turned out, the message from Iraq has also proved rather different from the one imagined when Mr Bolton and others declared victory in the early summer of 2003. Since then the war has sapped rather than showcased US power.

In this respect, the Bush administration’s decision to negotiate with North Korea reflects the geopolitical reality. The US remains the indispensable power in global affairs. But the bloody chaos in Iraq reminds it daily that primacy is not the same as omnipotence. Here lies the fundamental strategic truth: if Washington wants to settle things in the world it has to bring others along.

In North Korea’s case, the most important player was China, though the inclusion of Russia, Japan and South Korea in the talks was also significant. Beijing’s anger, alongside Washington’s alarm, at Pyongyang’s test was probably a critical factor. China keeps Mr Kim’s regime afloat, but the self-styled Dear Leader seemed determined to slip Beijing’s leash. He might well do so again.

For all such uncertainties, this week’s bargain carries a lesson relevant to Washington’s tense confrontation with Iran. It is possible, of course, as Mr Bolton says, that Tehran might now draw the conclusion that the way to strengthen its bargaining position is to accelerate its nuclear programme. In that case there is not much Washington can do. For all that, the six-party accord with North Korea does offer an alternative road map for dealing with Iran.

The US administration’s recent moves to “push back” against Iranian interference in Iraq and its support for Hizbollah in Lebanon have been widely seen as the prelude to an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. I think this interpretation is mistaken. More likely, the administration is attempting to demonstrate to its allies in the region that the Iraq quagmire has not destroyed its capacity to project American power. It wants also to show Tehran that its efforts at destabilisation carry a price. Israel may be itching to attack Iran, but among US officials I sense a determination to exercise restraint. The costs of an attack are simply too high and the gains too uncertain.

That calculation could change. But the US could also seek to apply the principles it has adopted in negotiations with Pyongyang. In some respects – close co-ordination with the European Union and with China and Russia – it has already moved in that direction. But the key insight is that any resolution of the nuclear issue can only be achieved as part of a much broader and inclusive strategic bargain. To my mind that lesson stands, however North Korea’s Dear Leader behaves in coming months.