Why the US needs a more measured appoach to the nuclear question
The deepening crisis in the Korean Peninsula and the stalled nuclear talks with Iran together are a powerful reminder to the United States that its nonproliferation policies are not working in Asia. If George W. Bush attempted muscular approaches including preventive war and regime change to stop the spread of nuclear weapons,his successor Barack Obama has put greater emphasis on coercive diplomacy through international sanctions.
Both approaches have failed. The American problem has less to do with the different stratagems that Bush and Obama adopted the former emphasising unilateralism and the later multilateralism. It has everything to do with rigid American political assumptions about the meaning and implications of proliferation of nuclear weapons.
First,after the Cold War,the American strategic community has elevated the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the highest possible level as an existential threat to international peace and security. American liberals and conservatives alike whipped themselves into a frenzy about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
While the US managed to live with an expansive nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union that saw both sides build thousands of nuclear weapons and deploy them around the world,Washington convinced itself it just cant accept the spread of any nuclear weapon capability,especially to regimes like Iran and North Korea. Paradoxically,the proliferation alarmism in the US has turned into a powerful incentive for those regimes seeking to draw American political attention. The argument here is not for minimising the dangers from the spread of nuclear weapons. It is to suggest that a more measured approach to the nuclear question will make it much easier for the US to pursue its larger interests in different parts of Asia.
Second,Americas obsession with nonproliferation has been made worse by the relentless demonisation of the regimes in Iran and North Korea. Calling them rogue states and projecting the rulers in Tehran as crazy has prevented the US from taking a political view of the proliferation challenge and building a pragmatic domestic consensus on how to deal with it. Seen from a comparative perspective,though,neither Tehran nor Pyongyang have been more deviant or threatening than the Pakistan army that has actively promoted proliferation and constantly used nuclear blackmail vis-a-vis India and the US.
Iran and North Korea have not always been opposed to engagement and reconciliation with the US. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and American intervention in Afghanistan,Tehran had cooperated with the US. North Korea,too,has been willing to negotiate its nuclear option at different times in the last two decades with the US. While the popular narrative is that North Korea is an unreliable interlocutor,Washington has also backed away from some of the commitments it made to Pyongyang. Fear of looking weak and giving away too much,and the ideology of nonproliferation,have prevented Washington from fully exploring the prospects for reconciliation with North Korea.
Third is the near fundamentalist political canon in Washington today that America cant and shouldnt accept Iran and North Korea acquiring any nuclear weapon capability. Suggestions that Washington could productively focus on containing rather than rolling back the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes draws fierce bipartisan outrage in the US establishment. This refusal to accept containment is rooted in the proposition that the non-Western regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang will not abide by the rules of deterrence. History should help put things in a better perspective. If America deterred Stalins Russia and Maos China regimes that once threatened to overthrow the international order why wont deterrence work with Tehran and Pyongyang?
Fourth,the Obama Administration has convinced itself wrongly that international sanctions would bring the regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran to their knees. While the sanctions have imposed pain on North Korea and Iran,they have also helped unify the targeted regimes that mobilise nuclear nationalism. The emphasis on multilateral sanctions had also made the US increasingly dependent on China and Russia,which demand a price every time Washington moves a fresh sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council. But it is by no means clear that Chinese and Russian interests are in complete alignment with those of the US in the Korean Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.
Fifth,the US has tended to make the discourse on Iran and North Korea focused exclusively on the nuclear question. By elevating nonproliferation above all other regional objectives,Washington has significantly limited its own room for manoeuvre in Asia and the Middle East. To get itself out of the current no-win situations with North Korea and Iran,Obama needs to discard the self-defeating nonproliferation myths that have transfixed the US in the last two decades. The manic obsession with proliferation in Iraq wrecked the presidency of George W. Bush and imposed extraordinary costs on the US.
Obama has every reason to avoid a needless war with either North Korea or Iran at a time when the US has so much work to do in getting its own house in order. He can turn the current crisis in North Korea into an opportunity by calling for a direct unconditional bilateral American dialogue with North Korea. If he takes a broader view of Americas interests in Asia and the Middle East,and is willing to make the nuclear question one element of the broader search for a stable balance of power in these two critical regions,Obama may find many interesting options to experiment with North Korea and Iran.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express