Commentary

Logical Conclusions: North Korea, Iran, and unintended consequences

This article originally appeared on National Review Online on January 14, 2003.

Washington’s goal of nuclear nonproliferation has suffered two serious setbacks in recent months. North Korea has admitted to pursuing a covert uranium-enrichment program and is now moving to reactivate a nuclear reactor in violation of the agreement it signed in 1994 to freeze its nuclear-weapons program. And in December U.S. intelligence sources reported suspicious activity at two possible nuclear sites in Iran.

What U.S. officials do not recognize is that such actions are a logical, perhaps even inevitable, response to the foreign policy the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War. Consider the extent of U.S. military action since the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The United States:

  • invaded Panama and overthrew the government
  • devastated Iraq in the Persian Gulf War
  • forced the government of Haiti from power by threatening to invade the country
  • bombed the Bosnian Serbs into accepting a peace agreement
  • bombed Yugoslavia into relinquishing control over its province of Kosovo
  • invaded and occupied Afghanistan
  • is now threatening to attack Iraq and oust its government from power.

Moreover, in his 2002 State of the Union address President Bush explicitly linked both North Korea and Iran to Iraq (a country with which the United States was apparently headed to war) in an “axis of evil.” It is hardly surprising if Pyongyang and Tehran concluded that they were next on Washington’s hit list unless they could effectively deter an attack. Yet neither country could hope to match the conventional military capabilities of a superpower. The most-reliable deterrent — maybe the only reliable deterrent — is to have nuclear weapons.

In other words, U.S. behavior may have inadvertently created a powerful incentive for nuclear-weapons proliferation — the last thing in the world Washington wanted to occur. American officials dismiss the fears of countries such as North Korea and Iran as manifestations of paranoia. That is true to a point. When the Creator passed out paranoia, the North Korean and Iranian political elites got in line twice. But as Henry Kissinger once pointed out, even paranoids have real enemies. And there is little doubt that the United States is the enemy of both countries.

North Korean and Iranian leaders likely noticed that the United States treats nations that possess nuclear weapons quite differently from those that do not possess them. That is not a new phenomenon. Just six years after China began to develop nuclear arms, the United States sought to normalize relations, reversing a policy of isolation that had lasted more than two decades. U.S. leaders show a nuclear-armed Russia a fair amount of respect even though that country has become a second-rate conventional military power and a third-rate economic power. And Washington treats Pakistan and India with far greater respect since those countries barged into the global nuclear-weapons club in 1998.

Contrast those actions with Washington’s conduct toward non-nuclear powers such as Iraq and Yugoslavia. The lesson that North Korea and Iran learned (and other countries may be learning as well) is that possessing a nuclear arsenal is the way to compel the United States to exhibit caution and respect. That is especially true if the country has an adversarial relationship with the United States.

U.S. leaders need to face the reality that America’s foreign policy may cause unintended (and sometimes unpleasant) consequences. Those people who cheered such initiatives as the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the ouster of the dictatorship in Haiti, and the nation-building crusades in the Balkans, and who now thirst for war with Iraq, need to ask themselves whether increasing the incentives for nuclear proliferation was a price worth paying. Because greater proliferation is the price we are almost certainly going to pay.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.