The invasion of Iraq has demonstrated not the strength of America and its allies but their profound weakness. With the “world’s policeman” held down by a few thousand insurgents in Iraq, the bad guys of the world have seen their chance and taken it. Iran will surely be next. If for no other reason than that North Korea has confirmed that the possession of nuclear weapons is the only way to guarantee national security.
That’s the logic of deterrence, after all. It’s the same argument we use for renewing Trident. It’s why 40 years of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty has left us even more insecure than during the Cold War. At least then there was a balance of terror, and a relatively predictable geopolitical order.
North Korea adds a totally new factor to the equation. For the first time we have nuclear weapons in the hands of someone, Kim Jong Il, who is quite prepared to use them and is not subject to any diplomatic constraint whatever. Kim doesn’t care about sanctions - his people are already starving. He is just the kind of madman who might decide to go out in a blaze of glory.
Which is why he will surely provoke a new nuclear arms race. Japan has been nuclear-free since Hiroshima, but not - I suspect - for much longer. Similarly, South Korea is going to want some guarantees against any nuclear intimidation by a country with which it is still formally at war.
And after them? Well, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt. Then what about the bellicose Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who has a lot of oil dollars to spend. Brazil might then want its own deterrent. Within a decade, there could be a real possibility of nuclear war breaking out in half a dozen conflict zones.
Was there another way? Of course there was. In the 1990s North Korea was in its box - like Saddam in fact - and was being weaned away from nuclear ambitions by subtle but persistent diplomatic engagement. The Clinton administration had used a combination of fuel oil and economic sanctions to persuade North Korea to freeze its military programme and cease producing plutonium - the key to successful bomb-making. When he lost office North Korea was on the point of giving up nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid and diplomatic recognition. It was only after George W. Bush made his “axis of evil” speech, and cut off the oil, that Kim started producing plutonium again.
Disarmament can work, provided it is clearly in a country’s economic interests to do so. Ukraine unilaterally abandoned nuclear weapons in exchange for economic guarantees, as did South Africa and even Libya. But Bush thinks talking is un-American and decided instead to give them all a taste of “shock and awe” by invading Iraq. He shot himself in the foot even before he took it out of his mouth.
Until we stop giving countries incentives to developing nuclear weapons, we are never going to stop them acquiring them. Of course, diplomatic engagement is difficult, time consuming and frustrating. As with decommissioning the IRA, progress can appear glacial - one step forward, two steps back. But it works in the end, because there is no alternative. Or if there is a military alternative, why are we not using it now?
The power of the West is not primarily military, it is economic and moral. America lacks the resolve and the means even to pacify a ramshackle country like Iraq - it doesn’t ‘do’ occupation. But it won the Cold War. It was always America’s ‘soft power’ - its economic and cultural leadership of the world - that was its real power. Rock music and computers. American democracy became the best political brand on the planet, and everyone wanted a piece of it.
Not any more. Bush destroyed America’s moral hegemony as surely as he destroyed its claim to military invincibility. The handful of neo-conservatives who seized power in 2000 like to talk tough, but they’re not saying Bomb Kim Now.