In his often brilliant, and sometimes misguided, analysis of the international system, The Inequality of Nations, Robert W. Tucker wrote:
"The history of the international system is a history of inequality par excellence."
It is the inequality between nation-states, divided roughly along a North-South geographical axis, that underpins the current international system. The world is divided between haves and have-nots. Nation-states that have and nation-states that have-not have engaged in a grand bargain since World War II in order to bring stability to the world order. One of the pillars of this grand bargain has been the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Bush Administration’s nuclear dance with North Korea and Iran have caused serious damage to the NPT and the grand bargain.
Earlier this week the United States and North Korea agreed to ratchet down the heat in their nuclear standoff:
The United States and four other nations reached a tentative agreement to provide North Korea with roughly $400 million in fuel oil and aid, in return for the North’s starting to disable its nuclear facilities and allowing nuclear inspectors back into the country, according to American officials who have reviewed the proposed text.
While the accord sets a 60-day deadline for North Korea to accomplish those first steps toward disarmament, it leaves until an undefined moment in the future — and to another negotiation — the actual removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the fuel that it has manufactured to produce them.
The deal that George W Bush ultimately got from Kim Jong Il is at best the same deal that was available to the United States when the Bush Administration took the reigns of power in 2001. The significant difference between 2001 and 2007 is that North Korea now has detonated a nuclear device and has perhaps a half a dozen nuclear weapons (which North Korea may get to keep).
The Yosemite Sam of international relations, the anti-diplomat John Bolton, lashed out at the Bush Administration when news of the North Korean deal broke:
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, blasted the new deal Monday in an interview with CNN, saying it would only encourage other countries trying to secure nuclear weapons.
"It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: If you hold out long enough and wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded," said Bolton, who was also involved with North Korea earlier as the State Department’s undersecretary for arms control.
"It makes the [Bush] administration look very weak at a time in Iraq and dealing with Iran it needs to look strong," he said.
Mr. Bolton is right on the conclusion, but is, characteristically, wrong on the reasoning.
The Bush Administration should be commended for choosing diplomacy over confrontation in seeking to engage North Korea. However, Mr. Bush’s newfound push for diplomacy comes at the tail end of six years of belligerence. Those six years of belligerence have led to the weakness that Mr. Bolton complains about – those six years of belligerence resulted from the active participation of the anti-diplomat John Bolton. By resorting to diplomacy when threats of regime change and military confrontation failed, the Bush Administration has shown its weakness. Mr. Bush had the option of practicing diplomacy from a position of strength from the outset – he chose not to – and instead steadily lost leverage to North Korea and China.
The rub in the North Korea deal is the timing, not the deal. The previous six years have caused much damage to the international system. Mr. Bush’s freedom agenda, the pursuit of "peace" by sacrificing stability, has been a primary driving force behind the failures that have led to a nuclear North Korea. Threats of regime change and phrases such as the "axis of evil" have poisoned the international system.
The "freedom agenda" has struck at the very heart of treaties such as the NPT. The grand bargain of the NPT is between the nuclear-weapon states (the haves) and the non-nuclear-weapon states (the have-nots). The bargain is as follows: the have-nots agree to not acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for assurances from the haves that the have-nots will not be attacked by the haves. Further, the haves agree to not proliferate nuclear weapons to the have-nots and also agree to work toward nuclear disarmament. The Bush Administration policies of the last six years, most notably the attack on Iraq, have given the have-nots reason to fear the haves and reason to acquire nuclear weapons. The delicate balance of the NPT has been upset. It should be noted that since the NPT came into effect no non-nuclear-weapon signatory other than North Korea has ever left the NPT or has ever acquired nuclear weapons. It is also noteworthy that North Korea left the NPT and became a nuclear weapons state under the Bush Administration’s watch.
The lessons of the North Korean experience are clear to the non-nuclear states. First, the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a necessary deterrent in a world dominated by a belligerent nuclear superpower. Second, nuclear weapons status is an essential bargaining chip against a belligerent superpower. Third, the NPT is no longer the governing principle in this new world order.
Robert W. Tucker, in concluding his thesis, laid out the challenge to the international order posed by the disparity between the haves and have-nots:
"Will the present beneficiaries of the international system prove able to control the power aspirations of those who will sooner or later seek no more, though no less, than what others have sought before them?… For those who are able to pursue it, the logic of the challenge to inequality is ultimately the logic of nuclear proliferation. In turn, the logic of nuclear proliferation is one of decreasing control over the international system by those who are its present guardians."
Fundamentally, as a guardian of the international system the Bush Administration has failed in its responsibilities. It has failed in the challenge to control the power aspirations of the have-nots by casting aside the grand bargain that was struck in the post World War II era. North Korea is but one symptom of the Bush Administration’s failure – Iran waits at the threshold with many more to follow.
It is ironic that the most warmongering and belligerent administration in American history has failed or is failing in the two wars that it has undertaken – Afghanistan and Iraq. The only real "success" it has seen on the international arena has been achieved not through war, but through diplomacy. Yet, that belated diplomacy has come at a heavy, and avoidable, price to the stability of the world.