Another Perspective

Useless Unanimity?

No nukes is good nukes, but Pyongyang goes full speed ahead.

By 10.9.06

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News flash one: well, it happened. News flash two: our firm but gentle approach with North Korea -- a far cry from preventive war on the Axis of Evil -- is working anyway! Look around the world and tell me what you see: the six-party talks undead, with Russia still on our side; China and Japan closer than ever, of one voice on the error of Pyongyang's nuclear ways; insistence, on our part, that that flat statement about "not living" with a nuclear PDRK was not a threat of force; and stone dead silence from the rest of the world.

Not a peep in favor of a nuclear North! Not from the South Koreans, often so eager to smooth over the rough edges of un-unification; not from Venezuela, where a tide of protesters ten thousand strong throws a shadow on the reign of Hugo Chavez, once again; not even from Iran, which has lapsed into one of those monthly brooding silences. It appears that not a single human being outside of North Korea was actually in favor of Kim Jong-il trying out the Bomb. Or, if they're out there, they won't cop to it.

That no one can blame them must be chalked up as a victory for that "soft power" people keep talking about with regard to hard old America. Even a blind squirrel, blind with hegemonic rage (or was it hubris?) finds a nut sometimes -- in this case, finally, a dire issue of national security that doesn't inflame the Arab street. But what have we earned for our trouble? What does soft power get us? Soft success, the foreign-policy version of soft rock?

Here, at last, at long last, the international community speaks with somewhere between one and 1.5 voices on the intolerableness of North Korean nuclear proliferation. It's an earnest stance, and that's important. But how durable is it? And what happens -- this morning, this Wednesday, this weekend -- when the details leak out and flow in?

Then the world shall take a long and unpleasant look at the mirror, on the long and unpleasant morning of another nuclear hangover. It's been so long since we've seen that haggard face. We can't keep this up like we used to. The early years of the Bomb went by so fast and high-strung -- and then that mid-life crisis in 1998? When India and Pakistan nearly blasted each other back to Gondwanaland? -- where has the time gone? We locked up A.Q. Khan and swallowed the key, yet stashed under the bed -- way in the back, covered in dust bunnies, just out of reach -- was Dr. Evil himself, fermenting away.

And now we are told the cork has popped. Of course we didn't want it to. But if history tells us anything -- about life in general and militarized, paranoid hermit kingdoms in particular -- we were going to get it anyway.

So rises the morning-mouthed specter of useless unanimity. What difference would it have made if the world -- or the international community, since as everyone knows secretly they're not the same thing -- sent seven mixed messages to the North Koreans? Would Kim, awash in confusion, have just called the whole thing off? Or even have postponed, like a date with second thoughts? Not our Kim. He has kept his survivalist state alive on the premise of playing for keeps.

Why, gazing deeper into the mirror, should we even have bothered to drum up such a collective frown in the first place? Who didn't treat the North like a nuclear power already? Couldn't we have saved something -- a few hours sleep, say? -- by dashing off a well-publicized communiqué saying, in so many words, Whatever? You're still so alone? Nobody liked you anyway?

It could have been so low-impact.

Only, that seemingly useless unanimity has a higher calling, a broader purpose. It has a Purpose-Driven Life. Unlike at the United Nations, where your votes on enforcing international law can be cast in plenty bad faith, in the real world of norms and agreements trust has to be built on the best of faith. When it came to North Korea, America wanted the great powers and South Korea to want what America wanted, and the great powers and South Korea wanted America to want what they wanted. Thus did international isolation and condemnation go hand in hand with a bombs-off policy.

REMEMBER WHEN BUSH COULDN'T stop talking about political capital? Well, there's an open exchange market in international political currency, too, and right now in Asia we're running a surplus. Changing the mind of the DPRK has been tried once before. And it succeeded -- at the cost of a comprehensive lie that bankrupted the Agreed Framework and allowed the United States to start over by framing for the world the North Koreans as bad-faith partners. And then the real bonding could begin.

Sure, there may be little practical consequence of the united front against NK nukes. China and Russia, in particular, will not do anything even remotely related to touching off a flood of wild-eyed and malnourished citizen-prisoners streaming across the Yalu. But however much of a ticking time bomb Kim's regime may be, east Asia is entirely unlike the Middle East in one key regard: proliferation already happened. Japan is understood to be a whopping six months away from an operational nuclear arsenal. China and Russia are, of course, well taken care of. And South Korea is garrisoned, lest we forget, with American troops...and weapons.

Given such a chessboard layout, the firm public support of all parties builds a habit of consensus and reflects what surely are stronger private commitments. By aiming for bland but substantial unity, the American policy of encircling North Korea has set the stage for the rising tide that will lift all boats: that nuclear test.

Outrage, at this point, will be mandatory. Outrage calibrated to strike a unified chord will be, too. Japan will shout the loudest, but that's okay -- it doesn't have an army. Or nuclear weapons. But every other party does.

Splash some water on your face. As we try to be in the wake of all hangovers, we're well-prepared to make the best of a bad situation. Kim's detonation is as ominous as a glimpse, for the first time, of a long-growling cur glaring out from behind a chain-link fence. The fix was in before the test, it is on this day of it, and it will remain so long afterward. It's old news -- and in a world reeling from new news in other corners, we could really use some more of that.

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.