N. Korea cri­sis calls for imag­i­na­tion from global lead­ers

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - DAVID SHRIBMAN Ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette

While ten­sions are ris­ing world­wide, his­tory pro­vides some com­fort that a res­o­lu­tion may be re­al­iz­able

The most re­cent mis­sile flight over Ja­panese air space only un­der­lines the no­tion that North Korea’s weapons of­fen­sive is a problem that begs for a so­lu­tion – and for imag­i­na­tion.

A mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion has dan­gers; Py­ongyang has nu­clear weapons, too. Sanc­tions sel­dom work; they are por­ous and usu­ally hit in­no­cent peo­ple rather than de­ci­sion mak­ers. China likely won’t in­ter­vene ef­fec­tively; its eyes are else­where and the sta­tus quo suits its lead­ers. No 21st-cen­tury problem needs a deus ex

machina as much as the cri­sis in­volv­ing North Korea and its deadly weapons pro­gram.

With provo­ca­tions and rhetoric es­ca­lat­ing on both sides, ten­sions are ris­ing world­wide. South Korea is mak­ing de­fen­sive pro­vi­sions, Amer­i­cans are talk­ing about mis­sile-de­fence schemes, the Ja­panese – who have foresworn a mil­i­tary for two-thirds of a cen­tury – are re-ex­am­in­ing their na­tional-se­cu­rity pro­file. Con­tem­po­rary news re­ports show worry is war­ranted – but his­tory pro­vides some com­fort that a res­o­lu­tion may be re­al­iz­able.

In the mean­time, two pop­u­lar the­o­ries are in col­li­sion.

The first is the no­tion, bur­nished by the Sec­ond World War ex­pe­ri­ence with Nazi Ger­many, that ne­go­ti­a­tions are a pre­lude to ap­pease­ment and that self­ab­sorbed dic­ta­tors feast on the weak­ness of peace-seek­ing lead­ers of democ­ra­cies. Like all read­ings of his­tory, that les­son has its lim­its, and they were reached to tragic end in the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence in Viet­nam, where five Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, heed­ing what they con­sid­ered the teach­ings of the Mu­nich ca­pit­u­la­tion of 1938, be­lieved that ad­ven­tur­ism if not ag­gres­sion – in that case a Com­mu­nist in­sur­gency based in North Viet­nam but with the back­ing of the Soviet Union and China – needed to be blunted by Amer­i­can mil­i­tary in­volve­ment.

The sec­ond is the no­tion, bur­nished by the fi­nal pres­i­dent caught in the Viet­nam quag­mire, Richard Nixon, that the dar­ing card to play is the diplo­matic one. And thus the 37th pres­i­dent – elected to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives as a hard­liner in 1946, pro­moted to the Se­nate in 1950 as a fierce op­po­nent to Com­mu­nism and cat­a­pulted to the vice-pres­i­dency in the 1952 elec­tion as an un­re­pen­tant Cold War­rior – trav­elled on pres­i­den­tial peace mis­sions to China and the Soviet Union in 1972.

For some­times it is the un­likely turns in the diplo­matic dance that change the for­eign-pol­icy whirl.

In the first months of the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion, White House chief of staff H.R. (Bob) Halde­man told na­tional-se­cu­rity ad­viser Henry Kissinger that the pres­i­dent “ac­tu­ally se­ri­ously in­tends to visit China be­fore the end of the sec­ond term.” The re­sponse of Mr. Kissinger, who had not yet be­come sec­re­tary of state: “Fat chance.” Not long af­ter, Mr. Nixon trav­elled to Ro­ma­nia and be­came the first Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to visit a Com­mu­nist coun­try since Franklin Roo­sevelt’s trip to join Joseph Stalin and Win­ston Churchill at a Sec­ond World War sum­mit in Yalta in the Soviet Union.

In Fe­bru­ary, 1972, while Demo­cratic ri­vals were cam­paign­ing for their party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in the snows of New Hamp­shire, Mr. Nixon trav­elled to China and, to the great dis­tress of his help­less op­po­nents, was able to of­fer a toast to the Shang­hai Mu­nic­i­pal Revo­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee pro­claim­ing, “This was the week that changed the world.”

It took an ag­ing anti-Com­mu­nist and an ag­ing Soviet sys­tem to pro­duce dé­tente in the 1980s, when Ron­ald Rea­gan, whose early pres­i­dency was marked by bel­li­cose rhetoric to­ward the Com­mu­nists in Moscow and a surge in de­fence spend­ing, pro­vided an ear to Mikhail Gor­bachev.

“We can de­bate and dis­agree,” Mr. Rea­gan said, “but there is never a sense of an­i­mus when the ar­gu­ments are over.” The two forged the In­ter­me­di­ate-Range Nu­clear Forces Treaty and set the stage for the Strate­gic Arms Re­duc­tion Treaty com­pleted in the last days of Mr. Gor­bachev’s rule. To­day, Mr. Rea­gan is broadly given credit for bring­ing the Cold War to a con­clu­sion.

The Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence in Cuba has taken a def­i­nite and de­ci­sive turn since the United States was en­gaged in the Span­ishAmer­i­can War of 1898.

Long a topic of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion – Amer­i­cans had their ac­quis­i­tive eye on the is­land coun­try to the south al­most as long as they had for Canada to the north – the two most im­por­tant re­cent de­vel­op­ments have been with­out mil­i­tary ac­tion.

In the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis of 1962, John F. Kennedy was able to force Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to with­draw bal­lis­tic mis­siles from Cuba, only 145 kilo­me­tres from the U.S. main­land. The suc­cess came from a com­bi­na­tion of a naval quar­an­tine and quiet diplo­macy, plus a se­cret agree­ment to re­move U.S. mis­siles from Italy and Turkey later.

Mr. Kennedy’s views evolved dra­mat­i­cally dur­ing the 13 days of the Oc­to­ber cri­sis. “The 1930s taught us a clear les­son,” he said in his na­tional tele­vi­sion ad­dress at the be­gin­ning of the episode, ex­plain­ing, “Ag­gres­sive con­duct, if al­lowed to grow unchecked and un­chal­lenged, ul­ti­mately leads to war.” As the cri­sis ap­proached its dra­matic de­noue­ment, Mr. Kennedy was telling his brother the op­po­site: “I am not go­ing to push the Rus­sians an inch be­yond what is nec­es­sary.”

A half-cen­tury later, pres­i­dent Barack Obama, born 14 months be­fore the on­set of the mis­sile cri­sis, moved to­ward reg­u­lar­iz­ing re­la­tions with Cuba, which had come un­der Com­mu­nist rule be­fore he was born. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has in­di­cated he will turn back parts of the Obama ini­tia­tive, forged with Fidel Cas­tro’s brother, but it is in­con­tro­vert­ible that re­la­tions be­tween the United States and Cuba have lost their hos­tile edge.

No one knows how the con­fronta­tion be­tween Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un will pro­ceed in the weeks and months ahead. Per­haps there will be bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions, or maybe a re­gional sum­mit. A third party could in­ter­vene diplo­mat­i­cally. Mr. Trump once sug­gested he might even be will­ing to meet the North Korean leader.

Months ago, dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion, Mr. Obama warned his suc­ces­sor that North Korea will be the big­gest for­eign­pol­icy cri­sis of his pres­i­dency.

So it is. But Wash­ing­ton needs to re­mem­ber that it is also the big­gest cri­sis of Mr. Kim’s lead­er­ship, per­haps more defin­ing for the North Korean leader than for the Amer­i­can. Diplo­matic spe­cial­ists in North Amer­ica tend to con­ceive of this as a chal­lenge that must be han­dled by the Trump team, but is pre-em­i­nently a chal­lenge for Py­ongyang.

It is, to be sure, a test of de­ter­mi­na­tion for Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump. But – for both of them – it also is a test of imag­i­na­tion.

AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

A Hyunmu-2 mis­sile is fired on Friday into the Sea of Ja­pan from an undis­closed lo­ca­tion on South Korea’s east coast dur­ing a live-fire ex­er­cise aimed at coun­ter­ing North Korea’s lat­est mis­sile test.

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