Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Nuclear Politics: American Engagement with North Korea and Iran

Toward the end of my last blog post, I posed a question: is my proposal for the U.S. to diplomatically engage with North Korea applicable to Iran? After all, Iran is another country with which America is involved in a nuclear diplomatic standoff with no end in sight. My answer is simple and to the point: no, I don't foresee my recommendations as particularly relevant to Iran, considering present-day world politics and American domestic politics. In short, Team Obama has a freer hand to step up its engagement with North Korea than with Iran.

Engagement with Iran would be complicated and face huge obstacles. In fact, currently, the attendant political costs of directly engaging with Iran, in a bilateral setting, would likely be very high for Team Obama. Remember, Barack Obama came into office with talk of extending a diplomatic olive branch to Iran, and that went nowhere. Sure, Iran was wary of Obama's offer, believing he wasn't sincere, that it was a half-hearted attempt to satisfy the American left before he put the hammer down on Tehran. Perhaps, as there's probably some truth in that assessment.

But more importantly, by 2010, Obama received significant blowback from a host of actors, including those inside America and overseas. Many American conservatives, American Jews (regardless of political persuasion), American moderates and independents, Israeli lobbying groups, and Sunni Middle East countries, notably Saudi Arabia, were at critical of the idea of directly engaging with Iran. They saw Obama's planned overtures to Iran as a strategic blunder, a violation of American national interests, and, simply put, pointless. Moreover, it was clear that these actors saw the engagement idea as an indictment of Obama himself: namely, his weak leadership, lack of a moral compass, and an absence of courage to stand up to bad guys in the world.

Because of these harsh criticisms, it just didn't make much political sense to keep engagement as a centerpiece of America's Iran policy. Plus, given the regional reaction, particularly from Washington's allies, the U.S. would have likely gone alone on this Iran endeavor, which would have caused major problems, such as jeopardizing the sustainability of talks with Iran.

The North Korea issue has a different set of domestic and international factors in play, making bilateral engagement less risky and costly for Obama and American foreign policy more generally.

On the international front, while Japan might be cool to the idea, South Korea and China and Russia would likely support a bilateral diplomatic push from Team Obama. Of course, there are limits to China's enthusiasm, however. Beijing certainly wouldn't want the U.S. to pull North Korea into its orbit. But considering where Washington and Pyongyang are right now, that's a whole long way from happening, and not a strong concern of China's.

Domestically, there would be resistance from the political right, which would protest any moves from Obama to engage with a tyrannical, aggressive, perhaps unstable, Kim regime. But if talks led to a marginal opening up of the North Korean state, which is unlikely but possible, then Obama's initiative would effectively blunt a considerable amount of domestic opposition. Moreover, keep in mind there's no anti-North Korea lobby, at least that I know of, that would pose severe domestic constraints on Team Obama.

So why hasn't he broached the idea of engagement with North Korea? At this point, without much concrete evidence, it's purely conjecture, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Obama hopes other countries, such as China, will take the North Korean threat seriously and do most of the hard work for America.

2. He overstates the political costs of dealing publicly, repeatedly with North Korea.

3. Obama is too pessimistic. It's possible he thinks there's no point of engagement, that North Korea won't deal, or if they do, a deal will be broken. There are problems with this logic, though. For instance, without a negotiated deal to end the nuclear standoff, the crisis on the peninsula continues and war remains a possibility.

4. Perhaps he doesn't take the threat posed by North Korea seriously enough, as the American right believes is his standard practice in approaching and dealing with the world's bad guys.

5. Team Obama doesn't have the right people in place, either at State or at the NSC, to guide, implement, and follow though on North Korea policy, including "remarkably few Korea experts at the top of its Asia policy team."

Whatever the case, let's hope Team Obama gets its act together on North Korea. There's way too much at stake in terms of world politics and human security. Furthermore, given Obama's very publicly stated interest in and commitment to denuclearization in the world, his reputation is on line, whether he realizes it or not.

Hence, the Obama administration needs to move beyond silence on this issue, abandoning its so-called policy of "strategic patience." It's time for the U.S. to exercise its leadership here. Think about it: it's Pyongyang that's setting the agenda while U.S. acts bemused, if not downright befuddled, on the sidelines. The main American diplomatic mover and shaker on North Korea, at the moment, is Dennis Rodman, the wild-haired, crazily-behaved former pro basketball player. That's a pretty damning statement about Team Obama, isnt it?

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