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Bush Doctrine Flunks Test on North Korea

Authors: Benn Steil, Senior Fellow and Director of International Economics, and Lawrence J. Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
January 25, 2003
The Boston Globe

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North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship has posed a formidable test for the fledgling Bush Doctrine on foreign policy, one which it has failed spectacularly. This should not have come as a surprise, since the reasoning behind it is fundamentally flawed.

The Bush Doctrine is in essence a three-legged stool, relying on the credible threat of overwhelming military force to constrain enemy behavior, acting unilaterally in the interests of avoiding external constraints, and doing so preemptively in anticipation of future enemy action.

While promoted by the Administration as a “Realist” doctrine for the 21st century, it is anything but. It fails to recognize the inherent limitations of force as a tool of foreign policy, of engaging an opponent unilaterally when this limits one’s leverage, and of declaring an intent to preempt an opponent that is clearly capable of preempting preemption. The case of North Korea starkly reveals all of these shortcomings.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has assured us that preparations for an Iraq strike do not constrain America militarily on the Korean peninsula, because the US military remains capable of fighting two full-scale wars simultaneously.

Whether true or not is unimportant in this case, because the President’s repeated promises not to invade North Korea have made clear our understanding that the conflict with Pyongyang is not amenable to a military solution.

Even if our armed forces were twice as powerful and effective as they are today, we would still be incapable of striking the North without risking overwhelming devastation to the South, either as a result of a retaliation by the North or radioactive fallout from an attack on the Yong-byon reactor. Thus, the application of diplomacy as opposed to military force is not a sign of weakness, but of sanity.

As for the US acting unilaterally, this is precisely what the North is after.

In painting its nuclear brinkmanship as a purely American concern, Pyongyang sets the stage to maximize US concessions. Only by building a coalition of partners whose interests in regional nonproliferation intersect with ours, and whose influence in the North leverages ours, can we hope to avoid making concessions that reward such behavior.

Finally, having announced a policy of preempting evil and then casting the North Korean leader as its epitome, President Bush gave the North every incentive to preempt our preemption.

Seen in the cold light of realpolitik, so favored by this Administration, Kim Jong Il’s behavior, however dangerous, has been a rational and predictable response to the President’s new doctrine. In other words, it was nothing more than muddleheaded triumphalism on the part of the Administration that led them to believe that swearing to preempt those whom we call evil would prompt them to cooperate with us, rather than strike us first in precisely the spot where unilateralism would leave us most vulnerable.

The Bush Administration is learning the hard way that diplomacy is not merely the first refuge of scoundrels, but rather the first line of defense in a dangerous world of sovereign wills.


Lawrence Korb is Senior Fellow and Director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Benn Steil is the Andre Meyer Senior Fellow and Director of International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.