Monday, March 03, 2003
Unfortunately, this pessimistic forecast re: North Korea from Stanley Kurtz sounds about right to me. I think Kurtz understates the diplomatic risks of war, however. At this point, we really are at risk of the complete collapse of the American-led security architecture of the northwest Pacific. I've been panicked about this for some time, and nothing has transpired to reassure me.
Kurtz outlines the case for war clearly. North Korea is primarily dangerous as a nuclear proliferator. The regime will, clearly, sell anything for cash. They have already cooperated on missile and nuclear technology with Pakistan, arguably the biggest nuclear risk in the world because our primary Islamist enemies have a significant foothold within the country (albeit this risk is mitigated by the fact - dramatically illustrated this past weekend - that the Pakistani government continues to place a very high value on maintaining at least minimally positive relations with America, and therefore in cooperating with us in the war on al-Qaeda). They have the capability to mass-produce nuclear material. They consider their agreements to be worthless and have minimal intercourse with the outside world that could be used to pressure them to disarm. Their leader is a deranged playboy completely out of touch with reality, the Commodus of the 21st century. If we let North Korea go, we'll lose the war on terror. But we probably can't bring them to heel short of war.
But let's think for a moment about the consequences of war. Kurtz outlines the physical costs well. If the United States launched a preemptive (non-nuclear) strike against the North's nuclear facilities, the North would certainly retaliate. They might launch a full-scale conventional assault against South Korea, with the potential for killing hundreds of thousands, obliterating much of Seoul and devastating the American forces on the penninsula. Kurtz reassures us that America would win, although at a high cost. But would we? How would South Korea respond to America plunging them into war against their will? Would they rally around the Americans assisting in their defense? Or would they demand the immediate withdrawal of any American presence in Korea and sue for peace on Northern terms? The war, after all, was started by us, for our own defense, without their approval, and they are expected to die for it. And if they did kick us out, how could we win - or even prosecute - the war? We might have bought time by wiping out the reactor, but at the cost of losing an important ally, and in a few years the crisis could well recur (as it did in Iraq ten years after Osirak.) Suppose, now, that North Korea, instead of launching a massive attack against the South, launched a few (non-nuclear) missiles against Tokyo? How would America respond? A massive attack on North Korea would certainly turn South Korea into an enemy, and a firm ally of China. But anything less would necessarily end our alliance with Japan; if we didn't defend them when attacked, what is our relationship worth?
Because we do not have South Korean and Japanese support for war with the North, a war started by the United States, it seems to me, would be overwhelmingly likely to destroy our relationship with South Korea and very likely with Japan as well, dramatically weakening the American presence in the western Pacific, and strengthening China. That's why China has no real interest in restraining North Korea: because American appeasement and belligerence alike push the other countries in the region towards China, and enhance China's position relative to the U.S. Moreover, it is very realistic to imagine that we would lose a war with North Korea, not because our forces are insufficient to achieve victory but because the South Koreans sue for a separate peace, making it practically impossible for America to continue hostilities.
I previously thought that the way to avoid this scenario is the same model followed with Iraq: make clear the case in a global forum that North Korea is an outlaw state that must be brought to heel, build a global consensus for action, and thereby assure that a war unfolds in a diplomatic context more favorable to the U.S. But the whole diplomatic process is looking pretty awful with respect to Iraq; rather than uniting the world, it has threatened to split the Western Alliance. The same could take place in East Asia: we could go to the U.N. demanding North Korea disarmament and South Korea, China and Russia could all line up against us. And then where would we be? Right back where we started, but with the world on record as opposing war. What a wonderful diplomatic context in which to fight.
Our alliances are not what they once were. During the Cold War, the front-line states were Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Turkey, etc. America had a strong community of interest with these states. They were the most at risk from a Soviet attack, but we had a strong military and economic interest in their freedom. We were willing to risk our lives and treasure to defend them because they were front-line states defending us and our interests. Now, the front-line state is America, but our ability to project power continues to depend on our allies, who increasingly feel that they would be better off appeasing America's enemies rather than standing with America against them. Yes, Germany is at risk from Islamic terrorism - but not so at risk as America, and standing with America would put them more at risk, not less, until the war is won (if it can be won, which they doubt). Yes, South Korea is at risk from North Korea - but these days appeasement is much more risky to America than to South Korea, because the main North Korean threat is from proliferation, and war with the North would cost the South much more than it would cost the Americans. Yes, Iraq is a threat to Turkey - but war in Iraq is also a threat, and the costs of sitting out look less significant than the costs of joining up, particularly when you remember that America has a storng interest in Turkish friendship and stability even if they are not helpful during the war. (Don't agree? Remind me: how did we respond to Jordan's support for Saddam in 1991? We largely excused it as understandable given their weak position, and ultimately redoubled our support for the Hashemites - because we continued to need them, even though they had not been helpful.)
The Bush Administration's national security strategy is premised on the assumption that the Great Powers - and, for that matter, the lesser but democratic powers - have sufficient interests in common that they can cooperate on global security. But this is not the case. Franco-German interests do not perfectly dovetail with America's interests; how much less so do China's. If we have to worry not only about direct threats to our security but rivals to our supremacy, the prosecution of our current war gets much more complicated. We have to think not only of the relative costs of appeasement of or war with North Korea in the short term, but the impact of our decisions on the likelihood of war with China further down the road.