The situation on the Korean peninsula has not been good for a long time. But the ceasefire agreed in the 1950s, following years of open warfare, seems more strained now than at any moment in recent memory.
With heightened tensions comes unpredictability. Yet the problem of North Korea and how to deal with its nuclear ambitions is not new. World leaders have been attempting to solve the problem of the hermit state for a long time.
The North Korean case serves as an object lesson in ‘the problem of conjecture’, a phrase of Henry Kissinger’s. This is not, however, a typically Kissingerian idea. In essence, Kissinger wrote, policymakers are paralysed by the idea of making decisions. At the point of taking each decision, the options which are presented to leaders abound; potential outcomes increase in number and expand outwards to fill the horizon.
Confronted with such choice, politicians panic. As a breed, they fret continually about the costs of making bad decisions. They grasp at ideal solutions rather than practical ones. This can become, for some, an unhealthy fixation.
This affects the quality of decision-making and can get in the way of doing anything at all. Action, of any kind, can be necessary. Pursuing a panacea defers the making of realistic choices.
To supplement the search for a perfect solution, some leaders make use of temporary fixes. They make short term decisions with only the short term in mind. In this analysis, the perfect is rendered the enemy of the good; but both the good and the perfect are put off for political expediency.
Solutions in the short term which work, and which mean there is no long term crisis, are often overlooked and unrewarded. These situations could require decisive and politically brave action, always weighed against the potential cost of failure.
In this way, necessary action is often unheralded. Averted crises don’t look like crises at all. Only that which occurred, rather than those possibilities which did not, is seen. Bad alternatives which may have been permanently closed off are unaccounted for in most analyses. Even many historians, to whom statesmen might hope to appeal, are loath to try the required counterfactuals.
Prevented massacres, for instance, are not news. NATO’s toppling of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and the country’s subsequent chaos, is often mentioned, but the fact that it stopped his advance on Benghazi in 2011 and reined in the colonel’s explicitly murderous intentions is less discussed.
Politicians have uniquely fearful careers. The possibility that they will be criticised weighs unduly on even the bravest. Many cannot see the attraction in taking risks to act when inaction is safer politically.
This can be seen in the way politicians deal with international crises. If North Korea’s nuclear programme had been effectively restrained in 1994, when Bill Clinton pursued a policy of doing a deal with the Kim regime which is now known to have failed, there would be no grave nuclear crisis today.
If the Kim regime itself had been removed from power, by either external actors or internal dissent, at any time in the past half-century, the fate of the Korean peninsula can only be guessed at. In such a situation, there would be no nuclear stalemate of the sort which dominates the area today.
But it must be borne in mind that Clinton, or anyone who acted necessarily, would not have received credit for doing good and preventing future crises.
The situation with Iran today is instructive. Even under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by the Obama administration, it is estimated that Iran will still be able to develop an offensive nuclear capacity in a few years. When that happens, the entire face of the Middle East will change.
Iran’s enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, may seek to increase their own offensive capabilities. Those states over which Iran has already sought to extend its power may become less independent and more subservient. And an Iranian imperium, of the sort which is already spoken of in worried tones, may become a reality. There will be a crisis comparable to that engulfing the Korean peninsula today.
The past provides cautionary examples. And the question must be asked: what will policymakers do now, either to remedy crises left unsolved, or to prevent those which may arise in the future? In North Korea this may mean taking a decision which will cost thousands of lives. Arresting Iranian influence – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – and halting its nuclear programme permanently will be unpopular and possibly dangerous. But at the moment the enemies of the United States and the post-war, post-Cold War world order it has created have the initiative.
Kim Jong-un can demand what he likes, confident that, in every arena other than the rhetorical, the United States will do little to stop him. Iran also knows that, despite American hostility, little will be done under the JCPOA framework to arrest its regional expansionism or nuclear ambitions.
The challenge therefore is a serious one: to recapture the initiative, to act in the short term to save the long term, and to avoid merely kicking the can further along the road.
This piece was originally published in The Telegraph.