“We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. …The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 29 January, 2002.
As the 12 month anniversary of President Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech approaches, it’s worth reflecting on what a disaster it has been for moderate reformers in Iran, South Korea’s embryonic ‘sunshine policy’ of rapprochement with the North and undoubtedly in the weeks ahead, what a catastrophe it will be for the people of Iraq.
More specifically, it is worth considering President Bush’s words above in light of the lesson that the Iraq-North Korea comparison is now teaching the world: if you want to deter the war addicts in Washington, you’d better have weapons of mass destruction and resources of terror. Nothing else will work.
How else can we explain Washington’s contrasting approaches to Iraq (which doesn’t have nuclear weapons or the potential to acquire them for some years) and North Korea (which has at least two nuclear devices and wants to build more). The former is being threatened with imminent war while the latter confronts only diplomatic offensives.
By any measure North Korea’s arsenal represents a much more serious threat to its neighbours, especially Japan, than any danger Iraq poses to the Middle East. It is a mistake to impute strategic intentions from a country’s weapons inventory. However, on the basis of Washington’s comparative responses to Iraq and North Korea, there can be no doubt that the possession of nuclear weapons and plausible threats to deploy them affords a state with greater levels of protection from external threats and interference than chemical and biological weapons currently appear to.
This lesson will not be lost on others, including Washington’s rivals and enemies.
North Korea has been assisted to develop weapons of mass destruction by two members of President Bush’s coalition in the so-called ‘war against terrorism’ – Pakistan and China. Consequently, Washington has little choice but to “permit [one of] the world’s most dangerous regimes” to threaten the US “with the world’s most destructive weapons.” As Seoul is undoubtedly reminding its North American ally, military strikes against the North are simply out of the question, regardless of how advanced the Pentagon thinks its weapons systems have become.
Given regular threats from Washington and London it is little wonder that Iraq and the other two members of the “axis of evil” want to develop weapons of mass destruction. As the realist political theorist Kenneth Waltz argues, “North Korea, Iraq, Iran and others know that the United States can be held at bay only by deterrence. Weapons of mass destruction are the only means by which they can hope to deter the United States. They cannot hope to do so by relying on conventional weapons.”
However, because we have so deeply internalised the myth that the US is a defensive nation which never instigates aggression against others, the idea of deterring Washington makes little initial sense. We rarely, if ever, consider the world from the viewpoints of Pyongyang, Teheran or Baghdad. If we did, we might wonder what alternative strategies are available to counter the world’s only superpower, which has made its hostility to all three abundantly clear.
In the West, North Korea, Iran and Iraq are states which by definition can never legitimately acquire the weaponry so keenly stockpiled in vast quantities by Washington and its allies. It’s an obvious double standard and it is not accepted by their governments. North Korea, for example, is being upbraided for unilaterally withdrawing from the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while Israel is immune from criticism even though it has always refused to sign it.
There can be no doubt about North Korea’s ideological delinquency and the paranoia of its leaders. It is a political anachronism with a limited shelf-life. However, in one of the great ironies of the current period it is the present climate in Washington that renders Pyongyang’s desire to build more nuclear weapons seems perfectly rational and understandable.