The paint in the oval office is starting to chip. In a few months it will be repainted-and not a day too soon. All week, President George W. Bush tried and failed to rally members of his own party in Congress to support the economic recovery plan. Regardless of the politics involved in the bailout, the gridlock in negotiations demonstrates the impotency of the current leadership. As the talks drag on, this country feels the financial consequences of this weak leadership. Because we at home acutely feel this problem everyday, we are distracted from the effects abroad. Foreign leaders are aware of the White House’s relative weakness and some are exploiting it. Yes, the administration is on its way out and can only do so much, but it could certainly be doing better.
The nuclear nonproliferation dialogue with North Korea is on shaky ground. The Kim Jong-Il regime is once again on the verge of breaking a disarmament-for-aid agreement arrived at through the six-party talks. This type of rogue behavior is not surprising-it has become a well-established pattern with North Korea. But in this case, it comes at a unique time. The United States is an awkward stage of transition. There is not enough time for the administration to renegotiate, which may be the factor influencing North Korea’s move.
The tools available to the current administration are limited, but a response is necessary. Rather than being immobilized though, this administration has the chance to take a risk and call the North Korean bluff. Some aid has already been delivered. The first move should be to immediately halt shipping of any more aid, to be resumed only when UN monitors are allowed to return. Sanctions have traditionally been ineffective, but this is more of a revocation of incentives rather than sanctions. This subtle distinction may make no difference, but the consequences of trying it are minimal.
In its last year this administration launched a frantic series of diplomatic efforts, some of which began promisingly. Since the widely-embraced initiations however, many of the endeavors have fizzled. In exchange for suspending its nuclear program, the United States was to remove North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism. But Bush has stalled repeatedly, demanding more transparency. This seems to me to be a ridiculous formality that has given the regime a reason to be noncompliant. To be able to hold other states to agreements, we must follow them ourselves first. Now we are truly in a precarious position. Because North Korea has thrown out the United Nations, now would be an inappropriate time to take North Korea off that list.
Nevertheless that is exactly what we need to do. We need to build a relationship with North Korea and create a foundation of trust. The regime needs to have faith that we will follow through and keep our word. Otherwise, what reason does it have to negotiate with us? We need to reward small steps forward to demonstrate our sincerity. Even though North Korea may not have been as transparent as Bush hoped it would be, it did display a great degree of openness about its nuclear program. So, the administration should have reciprocated. Alas, it turned what was a mutual give-and-take into a North Korean-give and American-take. So what reason does North Korea have to return to the negotiating table if it will only be asked to unilaterally submit to American demands?
To do what’s best for the country, the administration needs to swallow this mistake. Its legacy is not going to be decided in these last few months, so it should make the tough decision, remove North Korea from that list-which is just a list after all, no matter what strings are attached-and give the incoming administration a better chance at making further progress in the area of denuclearization. It is time to get serious about nuclear weapons proliferation. Before the six-party talks are abandoned altogether, as some have suggested, they have to be given a real chance to succeed.
Furthermore, a comprehensive nonproliferation policy must recognize the threat of Russia. Russia just announced its plan for a space defense system and an upgraded nuclear arsenal in response to an American plan for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. This is unacceptable and it is our fault, which obviously is not to assign the blame of Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior solely on us. But we haven’t helped. History has taught us that when one nation arms, another one arms in response. The back and forth continues as each side perceives the other as a threat; this is called an arms race. To end it, someone has to stop.
There is no threat immediate enough to compel the United States to install a missile defense system, so the plan needs to be abandoned. Clearly, it will not happen before the current administration is out of office. So why not end the plan now? If the incoming administration wants to go that direction it’s not as if the option would be unavailable. But renouncing the decision right now would have the immediate benefit of reducing tensions with Russia.
It is Russia’s conventional forces, not its nuclear forces, which are outdated. Russia does not want to have to spend its petrodollars on a defense system that it doesn’t need. Just as we-more than ever-need to focus funds domestically, Russia also has domestic needs to meet. The lame duck administration certainly cannot solve the most complicated and challenging foreign policy questions before it leaves. But it can do better.