Monday, October 09, 2006

Theodore Roosevelt on North Korea

What would that great Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, have told his distant successor George W. Bush about dealing with North Korea?

Most likely a basic piece of Roosevelt Republican advice:

"Speak softly and carry a big stick."

The speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick strategy is about holding power in reserve, but letting that power you're holding back set the shape and terms of the negotiation. You don't hit your opposite number with the stick. You don't even swing the stick around. You just keep the stick lying quietly near your hand, where the person you're speaking softly to can see it. And you let the fact that you have the stick while they do not magically work for you.

The greatest power comes not from landing a blow, but from the enemy's anticipation of a blow. Once you've actually used your stick (whether that stick is military actions or trade sanctions or whatever else), your bargaining position is at a low ebb. They no longer fear the consequences of displeasing you, since they've already incurrred those consequences. And they now have a chance to evaluate the price of displeasing, to weigh it against other interests and perhaps to conclude that taking your blow is an acceptable cost of business. Worst of all is the other party's decision that it cannot avoid your blow in any case. Then it has no reason to cooperate with you at all.

One of the beauties of the big-stick model is that it derives diplomatic advantage from military strength without diminishing that strength. You can achieve far more by diplomacy underwritten by the credible threat of force than you ever could through force alone. Once you commit to using force, you give away all of your other tools of persuasion, but the implied threat of force strengthens those tools.

George W. Bush's approach to diplomacy might be described as "Shout, shout louder, and break your stick over the table just to prove you mean business." This approach increases the odds of facing a hostile crowd with nothing but splinters in your hands.

He has threatened North Korea repeatedly, but idly. He publicly denounced them as part of the "Axis of Evil" in 2001, while they were still keeping their plutonium fuel rods in a containment pool open to outside inspection. When the North Koreans broke the Agreed Framework in 2002 and began reprocessing that plutonium, Bush did nothing. The Clinton administration had made it clear to Pyongyang that reprocessing plutonium was a "red-line" violation that would trigger a United States attack. No such punishment was forthcoming from the Bush administration. Instead, he denounced North Korea again. Denounced and threatened for not using the plutonium; denounced and threatened for using the plutonium: the optimal strategy for any tin-pot dictator is clear.

Bush spoke as loudly as possible. But the stick was nowhere in evidence.

Bush and company took a "hard-line" stance on North Korea, refusing to negotiate with them separately, and calling for the maximum possible sanctions (indeed, for harsher sanctions than we could manage to implement). This superficially "tough" approach weakened the American position in two important ways. First of all , it made no distinction between major or minor offenses by the North Koreans. All of their misbehavior was met with the same harsh but impotent rhetoric, giving them the impression that in practice it didn't matter how much they provoked us. All provocations were met with essentially the same response, so they had no incentive to moderate their behavior. Second, our refusal to engage with them sent the message that they could not avoid our displeasure in any case. Why, then, try to please us at all? If the US could not be appeased, the chief remaining options were deterrence and blackmail. None of this is an excuse for Kim Jong-Il or his monstrous regime. But simply calling Kim Jong-Il's regime monstrous doesn't solve the problem of containing it, and for too long such name-calling was George W. Bush's primary strategy.

There's been a lot of tough-guy posturing, but much less genuine toughness, and in the end the United States's position has been immeasurably weakened. Now, thanks to four years of Bush's idle threats and inaction, Kim Jong-Il may have a big stick of his own. Let's see how softly he decides to speak.

No comments: