October 4, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
John Kerry has strongly criticized the Bush administration for its "go it alone" - or unilateral - approach to foreign policy. For months, Kerry has claimed America has shouldered too much of the burden in Iraq by itself. He says he would have taken a multi-national - or multilateral - approach, bringing along more allies for the fight and the reconstruction afterwards.
But after vehemently denouncing the Bush administration for being a cabal of foreign-policy unilateralists who needlessly alienate allies at every opportunity, Kerry took quite the unilateral tack himself - on North Korea.
After singing the praises of multilateralism in Iraq in last Thursday's debate, Kerry reversed course at the podium to castigate President Bush's refusal to engage in head-to-head (read: unilateral) negotiations with North Korea over the Stalinist state's nuclear-weapons program.
But perhaps even more important than Kerry deviating from his "Multilateralism or Bust" approach to foreign policy is that he failed to mention that America already tried unilateralism with North Korea under the Clinton administration.
The result? It failed miserably.
But first a little background. Everyone agrees North Korea is a serious problem. The Korean peninsula remains the last vestige of the Cold War, with North and South divided since 1945. And North Korean militarism is a serious threat to regional peace and stability.
Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il wants to perpetuate his vicious regime and reunite the Korean peninsula under his Stalinist rule. It will try any trick in the book to achieve this end. Despite a devastating 10-year famine, Pyongyang still fields a costly 1.2 million-man army - one of the largest in the world. It threatens America's ally South Korea and the 35,000 American troops stationed there.
North Korea's prodigious ballistic missile arsenal is also troubling. Its newer, long-range Taepo Dong ballistic missile is capable of reaching the continental U.S. North Korea's major export is ballistic missiles and it favorite customer is Iran. (No comfort there, either.)
But North Korea's nuclear program is the most frightening. Intelligence estimates suggest Pyongyang may have enough fissile material for six to eight nuclear weapons. And there's little doubt that North Korea has cooperated with both Iran's and Pakistan's nuclear programs for mutual benefit.
The question then is: How do you tackle the North Korean problem short of storming of the beaches?
In the early 1990s, North Korea was on verge of becoming a nuclear-weapons state. After intense negotiations led by former President Jimmy Carter, the United States and North Korea signed the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework to end Pyongyang's nuclear program.
In exchange, America, Japan and South Korea poured billions of dollars of food and energy aid into North Korea. (Neither Tokyo nor Seoul signed the accord, but became obligated to provide aid under it.) The nuclear program seemed frozen - until 2002, when America discovered that the North had been cheating for at least four years.
The reason? The United States - by itself - was unable to muster enough diplomatic pressure to ensure North Korea was complying with the agreement. It was clear that a multilateral approach, incorporating the influence of other key regional players, was needed.
To remedy the shortcomings of the 1994 agreement, the Bush administration established the Six-Party Talks. The idea is to use multilateral pressure from America, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program.
Of particular note, the administration realized that the country with the most influence on Pyongyang is China, its largest aid donor and most powerful neighbor. Beijing was needed to put the squeeze on a reluctant North Korea to bring it to the negotiating table as well as ensure Pyongyang's future compliance with any new agreement.
It's also clear that failure to include China and other regional powers as stakeholders with a voice in the outcome of the talks would mean almost-certain failure for any agreement - and continued Korean nuclear brinkmanship and blackmail.
It's become evident that the only effective way to end the North Korean nuclear game - completely, verifiably and irreversibly - is to meet it head-on with a united, multilateral diplomatic offensive.
Unilateralism and multilateralism, including coalitions of the willing, have their place in international affairs. It depends on the circumstances. But in the case of North Korea, the Clinton administration's unilateral approach, although well-intended, failed. And, unfortunately, Kerry's head-to-head approach won't fare any better.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
First appeared in the New York Post