October 4, 2004
By Peter Brookes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
First appeared in the New York Post
Kerry has strongly criticized the Bush administration for its "go it alone" - or unilateral - approach to foreign policy.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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