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THE INDEX — May 28, 2009

As fighting among Somali rebel groups and the government has escalated, President Sharif S

Jonathan Power: Can Obama Better Ronald Reagan on Nuclear Arms Control?

A 50 percent reduction in the nuclear arsenal of Russia and the United States was proposed by President Barack Obama this past weekend. And President Dmitry Medvedev seems to be receptive. What neither have mentioned is that we have been here before—with presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. But, in a bit of infrequently told history, this earlier attempt at a grand disarmament was undermined by a key adviser on the American side and short sightedness on the Soviet side. Although Russia and the United States keep their missiles on hair-trigger alert, there is almost nobody in the higher reaches of policy making on either side who thinks they would ever be used. Indeed, this has been so for years. Doubts about the reasoning for the vast number of nuclear weapons in America's stockpile go back a long way. President Dwight Eisenhower, the former World War II commander in chief, observed that, “military statements of nuclear weapons requirements were grossly inflated.” Indeed, nuclear stockpiles seem to have always been governed by a calculus of confusion. Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, once replied to a question posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Rhodes (whose latest book, Arsenal of Folly, is the best single read on the subject) by saying, “Each individual decision to increase the number of nuclear weapons seemed rational at the time but the result was insane.” Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, certainly no dove, while negotiating with the Soviet Union in Moscow, said at a press conference, “One of the questions we have to ask ourselves as a country is what in the name of God is nuclear strategic superiority?” Ronald Reagan was the first American president to break through the murk and horror of the nuclear weapons debate. Many have judged Reagan as a bit of a simpleton. But now, thanks in part to good biographies on him, we may have a more nuanced view. Yes, he wasn't an intellectual, but his political instincts were fine-tuned and turned out to be right more often than the counsels of his experts. Within his administration it was he who felt the strongest about nuclear abolition. Jack Matlock, Jr., who served as Reagan's principal adviser on Soviet affairs, said in one interview that he “suspected that Reagan would not retaliate in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.”

Peter Kang: North Korea’s Missile Launch—Is Obama Repeating Bush’s Failed Policy?

The legacy of policy missteps on Pyongyang is long and tortured. Behind all the disturbing failures of President Bush’s North Korea policy—including the inability to prevent North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006 and the removal of Pyongyang from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008—run two themes that President Obama would do well to avoid. Bush turned to engagement policy based on the false expectation that North Korea would eventually give up its nuclear program and weapons, when, in fact, Pyongyang was using negotiations as a deception strategy to gain time to pursue its nuclear ambitions. In the meantime, it extracted economic gains and other benefits, such as a peace treaty, to make the dictatorship more secure. Second, despite his occasional use of tough verbiage, Bush was never able to translate his words into effective action due to fear of the North’s constant threats of war. Whenever Bush tried to exert serious (non-military) pressure, Pyongyang blocked it by invoking military brinkmanship, often calling Bush’s attempt a “declaration of war.” Each time Bush retreated, Washington encouraged the North to repeat the same scare tactics. These two strategies—a diplomatic delaying game and military brinkmanship—have been the backbone of North Korea’s success in manipulating and weakening the U.S. government’s efforts. In what promises to be the first major test of the Obama administration, Pyongyang is gearing up for the test launch of a long-range rocket scheduled to go off sometime between April 4 and April 8. Although Pyongyang claims it is a communications satellite, both U.S. and South Korean intelligence sources believe it to be a disguised test launch of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile that could potentially reach Alaska, Hawaii, and the west coast of the United States. The action, if successful, would be a crucial milestone for North Korea’s military advancement and substantially raise its offensive capability, its proliferation potential, and its leverage for future dealings with adversaries. The United States is very anxious to avert this provocative action, as are South Korea and Japan. But President Obama has said very little about North Korea, in relation to the missile launch or anything else. In fact, other top officials in the administration have not been of much help either. Secretary of State Clinton initially described the North’s missile test as “unhelpful.” She later said the rocket launch would “violate the UN Security Council resolution 1718,” but failed to specify how the North will be penalized if it violates the decree. Asked what the United States might do if the missile launch takes place, she said, “I don’t want to talk about the hypothetical. We are still working to try to dissuade the North Koreans.” The Obama administration’s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, has used equally hollow turns of phrase: “We hope North Korea refrains from the provocation of firing a missile, and...if that [launch] does happen, then obviously we'll have to...decide how to respond.” Only belatedly, in late March, after the rocket was mounted on the launch pad, did representatives of the United States, South Korea, and Japan get together to issue a warning about bringing the matter to the UN Security Council. Yet they refrained from mentioning any strong, specific penalties. Pyongyang, of course, quickly reacted by warning that a UN action to punish North Korea will be regarded as a “blatant hostile act.” Further, they warned, should Washington bring the matter to the Security Council it will cause the Six-Party Talks to break down, critically hurting the process of denuclearization. A pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan hinted that North Korea might resort to a second nuclear test in response to a UN sanction. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Japanese defense departments have been talking about plans to shoot down the missile. But, when there’s still time to issue a stiff warning in order to block the missile launch, planning such an attack—however defensive in nature—is more likely to provoke and encourage North Korea to carry out the test. (Fortunately, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has backed away in recent interviews from U.S. plans to shoot down the North Korean missile.) The stakes are high: a missile launch would highlight Washington’s weakness. The Obama administration seems unwilling to exert strong pressure on Pyongyang against the launch because of its desire to continue the nuclear talks (with the lingering expectation that negotiation might succeed somehow) and perhaps also due to fear of violent reactions from the North Korean regime. These are the exactly same reasons that informed the failed policies of the Bush era. In the long run, Obama’s approach, which emphasizes more engagement with, and acceptance of, Pyongyang than the policies pursued by Bush, is likely to grant even more precious time to the North. In the end, the Obama administration may be writing the final chapter of America’s failed North Korea policy by bringing about a devastating U.S. surrender: abandoning the denuclearization effort, accepting the monstrous tyranny as a member of the world nuclear club, and opening the gateway for the North to take over the South.

FALL FUNDRAISER

 

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