It’s easy to look at what’s happening currently in North Korea with an air of panic. A nuclear test here, resumption of nuclear reprocessing there, with treaty abandoning and missile lobbing to add to a worryingly volatile mix, and you have a cornerstone of the ‘Axis of Evil’ frighteningly playing up to the caricature painted of it by Dubbya. Sanctions haven’t worked, diplomacy hasn’t worked, and now North Korea is aggressive and nuclear – what’s Obama to do, particularly because this is also clearly the first big foreign policy test his enemies have chosen to level at him? Attack in some fashion (or encourage Pyongyang to do so through the slightest recklessness) and he risks World War – the Japanese, Chinese, Russians and NATO would intervene in moments and we all lose – terminally. Do nothing whilst South Korea sweats, and he looks weak; Obama clearly doesn’t relish the prospect of being seen as a neo-Jimmy Carter. Simon Tisdall offers Kagan & Blumenthal’s argument that Obama has now to risk a game changing strategy with China in order to make this change decisively:
The idea that Washington and Beijing shared a common strategic interest in “solving” North Korea was false, Kagan and Blumenthal said. “In theory, China could pressure Kim to give up his weapons … But the fact is, China doesn’t want to. Beijing is content to live with a nuclear and anti-western North Korea. While China fears a collapsed North that would flood its struggling north-east with refugees, it also fears a unified, democratic, prosperous Korea allied with the US. China wants a puppet state in North Korea.”
Taking on China over North Korea is the option entailing the most strategic risk. It is the sort of game-changing, Nixon-like demarche that distinguishes great foreign policy presidents from great talkers. Given the current balance of political, diplomatic and economic forces, Obama could probably do it. But it would take great courage.
Now’s the big test – he’s all mouth on some domestic issues, and he still hasn’t played his hand fully on some foreign issues (notably Israel/Palestine). What’s he prepared to risk to get the outcome he wants (and unlike his idiotic predecessor I hope he actually has a concrete idea of what he wants)?