A North Korean submarine torpedoed and sank a South Korean gunboat in March, killing 46 sailors. This was the conclusion of a thorough investigation by experts from the U.S., Australia, Britain, and Sweden, last week. The White House then decried “an act of aggression,” omitting that it was also an act of war. The latest of many.
While it is true that the leaders of North Korea are insane, it is not helpful to leave matters there. Even the insane have motivations, and in this case, numerous allies. In the past, Pyongyang’s most belligerent acts have been performed with a certain base cunning, and generous consideration of the interests of their allies: chiefly Iran, and China.
Most notably, as I have written before, Pyongyang tends to create an incident at a moment when the heat is rising on Iran; and the favour is often returned by the ayatollahs. The two countries are obviously pooling nuclear and missile expertise, and both benefit from technology provided by China and Russia—which in turn shield both against sanctions at the United Nations. This game puzzles the West’s finest strategic minds. (And I say that facetiously.)
The endless diplomatic shuttle to Beijing and Moscow, to beg support for mild sanctions, is not merely a waste of time and jet fuel. It is seriously counter-productive. It increases Chinese and Russian power and prestige, directly at the expense of American and European. It increases the value to them of Iran and North Korea as provocateurs, and encourages additional investments. There is no downside for them. There is no upside for us.
There is only the spectacle of Western diplomats playing the monkey in the middle—which is what “shuttle diplomacy” is all about. Nothing more. It has, and has always had, a success rate of zero: for the paper agreements that are obtained by this method of self-humiliation mean nothing whatever to the parties that finally agree to sign them—in order to keep the game going.
The Pyongyang politburo, for instance, has welched on every agreement it has ever made. So why do we seek yet another, and continue to supply the goodies we promised in return for the past ones? Are we crazier than they are?
Effective diplomacy is seldom if ever done publicly. It requires tough negotiations conducted nearly invisibly; and certainly without speeches and press conferences. Treaties may be signed, by parties with a sane understanding of their own long-term interests; all the other paper may be recycled. This holds true even for negotiating trade agreements between Canada and the States; how much more when discussing delicate matters with tyrants for whom loss of face is infinitely more important than loss of life?
You don’t make treaties with such men. Instead, you do everything in your power to isolate and weaken them. And their allies. Let China pick up the whole tab for keeping Pyongyang’s psychopaths in business.
Perhaps the greatest tactical error in diplomacy is to make a threat you are not prepared to act on.
The Bush administration earned a reputation for being as good as its word, alas at the sacrifice of much public support. On North Korea, however, Bush was at a loss. But he didn’t make the kind of pointless threat we’ve now heard from the Hillary Clinton State Department: that it is mulling over punitive measures, all of which Pyongyang knows will be toothless.
The Obama administration has already squandered its predecessor’s legacy. In any paragraph of any Obama speech on foreign affairs, the reader will discover that the new policy is walk softly and throw away the big stick. The recent obscene display of joint anti-American crowing from the leaders of Brazil, Turkey, and Iran, is the sort of thing that could not have happened under previous U.S. administrations. It was a frightening harbinger of things to come.
The wilful naïveté reaches fatuous heights in the current U.S. demand that North Korea should find, try, and punish the perpetrators of the torpedo attack. Do they seriously expect the politburo in Pyongyang to put itself on trial for crimes against humanity? Don’t make them laugh.
South Korea’s government has taken several small steps to express its displeasure, and impose some modest costs on the murderers. It has withdrawn from several minor cooperative agreements with the North, and will resume propaganda radio broadcasts that were stopped as part of a previous paper agreement.
Pyongyang upped that ante yesterday, by theatrically severing relations with the South, thus sending Mrs Clinton into another begging frenzy towards Beijing.
A more effective response, from the West, would be to calmly allow that all previous agreements with Pyongyang are abrogated, and all negotiations concluded. Then, without eagerly consulting Beijing, silently but visibly build the allied military presence (including intelligence operations) in theatre. Instead of wondering what they will do next, let them wonder what we will.