Small World: Keeping our powder dry and locked up
By Henry Precht
“Try diplomacy.” That’s what the experts tell us needs to be done when the country confronts a particularly onerous problem overseas. It’s funny how members of Congress, journalists, and college professors all come up with the same vague prescription when war trumpets are being sounded. What exactly do they mean? Do they have any idea what they’re asking for? Let me apply my filter to their rhetoric.
North Korea is a good starting point as we have applied to them every known technique for regulating the connections between nations — everything from outright war (called a “police action”) to bribes of oil and other essential supplies. And the outcome? Leader Kim Jong Un, who has fired off nukes, has just tested what he says is an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). That set off a flurry of tough talk and yet another round of sanctions proposed at the UN. No one thinks any of these measures is going to transform North Korea into an Asian Norway. So…try diplomacy.
We need to be careful: diplomacy might bring us what we don’t want. The goal of diplomacy is to create mutual trust where suspicion, hostility, and total (or sometimes partial) mistrust have ruled. That means treating an antagonist with respect or, if none is available, silence and toleration. That’s why diplomacy is such a difficult business in a democracy. We can’t control what our press writes to describe their image of an oppressive slave state — especially when our government leaders are singing the same tune behind the chorus.
Once an American president has thoroughly denigrated a foreign leader it becomes impossible to be seen talking amicably to him, much less signing a document that commits the United States to good behavior. (Have you ever heard an American leader say he was taking a weapon of war “off the table”? Our chiefs dread nothing more than to be perceived as weaklings/wimps.)
If a decent respect is the first requirement for diplomacy, almost as important is the enlistment of allies in our effort. China, in particular, South Korea, and Russia are countries that have their own special interest in Pyongyang and in not having that neighbor involved in a destructive struggle that could easily spill across the border bringing along a tsunami of refugees. In fact, they are the only other countries that might assist with our diplomacy. Japan was Korea’s brutal occupier for decades; Taiwan can’t be seated at the same table as China. Other nations — e.g., Australia, Vietnam, Germany, and India — can be invited but their role will be as a Greek chorus: to appear sage and try to keep the discussions on track and flowing.
Once the decision to enter into negotiations is made, details take control. The first is who will sit at the table. That is crucially important. President Carter, amply supported by his regional experts, was essential for the success of Camp David. The same is true for the Israeli and Egyptian delegations at that two-week conference. The nuclear deal with Iran worked because both sides — the U.S. and Iran — were led by intelligent, patient, and motivated officials. It helped that the European and Chinese participants were similarly staffed.
I’m not sure that talks with the North Koreans will be so fortunate. There are strong factions in South Korea’s security establishment, and in our own, that don’t want to see a deal done with the North. Across the border, as noted, Chinese, Russians, and civilian politicians from South Korea seem willing to offer a balanced approach to Pyongyang. Elements of an agreement might include freezing the North’s nuke and missile programs and the United States suspending major military exercises. The North might also want relief from economic sanctions and the United States could ask for UN inspectors to resume their task of nosing about in the North.
President Kim and his clique might well decide that such an agreement would meet their needs, especially if South Korea were to resume a policy of dialogue and cooperation. Would the Trump administration buy in? There are a lot of hard-line right-wingers inside and on its fringes and there are Democrats who would joyfully attack an agreement they could call weak. Ending this crisis may be beyond the scope of textbook diplomacy.
Nevertheless, as one who served in the Korean War (albeit in Naples, Italy) I hope the United States can avoid another conflict on the continent of Asia.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.