North Korea has become the last member of President Bush's three-nation axis of evil to cause trouble in the world. The president is handling this crisis better than those with Iraq and Iran.
There were two mistakes with respect to Iraq. One had to do with intelligence. Either he believed unreliable intelligence that was fed to him by intelligence officers anxious to tell the boss what he wanted to hear, or he made up what he wanted to believe. The other mistake had to do with the United Nations and our allies there. He lost patience while they were deciding what to do and invaded Iraq with limited support, mostly from Great Britain. That support has cost Prime Minister Tony Blair dearly; his Labour Party may lose its parliamentary majority.
Mr. Bush has shown more patience in the Iranian case, both with Tehran's government and our allies in the UN. But he has been no less imperious about what he will tolerate.
With North Korea, the president was right to resist bilateral negotiations in favor of reviving the long stalled six-party talks that included China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea along with the United States and North Korea. In a diplomatic breakthrough, China announced Tuesday that the talks would reconvene shortly.
One of North Korea's objectives might be to split the US from the other parties. This is to be avoided if at all possible. The other parties, especially China, might well have more influence with North Korea than we do. They might also have better ideas on how to get to where we want to go. Where we want to go is a position of reliable assurance that North Korea will not use nuclear weapons and will use its nuclear program only for peaceful purposes – electrical power generation, for example. President Clinton thought he had reached this position, but he had not.
On a broader scale, the current crisis could be a turning point in nuclear policy generally. Sooner or later – sooner is better – the US is going to have to recognize that its nuclear nonproliferation policy has been a failure. Third-world countries view becoming a nuclear power as a mark of national prestige. They resent being told by the rich and powerful that this will not be allowed.
In the aftermath of America's atomic bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the US government sought to internationalize development and control of nuclear energy. A plan put forward by David Lilienthal, then a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, would have put all atomic research and development under the control of an "atomic development authority." National programs, including America's, would be banned. Alas, this was an early victim of the cold war.
Now, 60 years later, the nuclear genie is so far out of the bottle that it probably cannot be put back. With its test last month, North Korea has apparently joined the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan, and India in the nuclear club. Libya's bid to join ended under US pressure in 2003. Many suspect that Iran is hard at work developing a nuclear weapon.
It can reasonably be argued that nuclear weapons in the hands of the superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – kept the peace during the cold war. Both sides accepted the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD). The expectation that the first use of a nuclear weapon would surely destroy the country using it formed a potent deterrent. But MAD may not deter the leaders of some of today's nuclear powers.
Meanwhile, US policy has turned pragmatic (some might say inconsistent). We looked the other way when China and Israel got the bomb. For decades, the US imposed aid sanctions against Pakistan to prevent nuclear development there. It added further sanctions against it and India in 1998, after their successful nuclear tests.
Things are different today. Bush lifted the remaining restrictions on both countries soon after 9/11, when the United States desperately needed their help in the war on terror. Bush flew all the way to New Delhi this spring to negotiate an agreement for the US to help India develop peaceful nuclear energy. A powerful American motive might have been to reduce competition for world oil supplies from an industrializing India.
This is the current state of play. So where do we go from here? Everybody is better off with no, or at least no more, nuclear weapons. It is a paradox of international relations that the less a country can afford a nuclear weapon, the more it wants one.
So what to do? The United Nations, for all its shortcomings, is the appropriate, possibly the indispensable institution. The problem now is how to keep proliferation from becoming a global nuclear arms race.
A Nobel Peace Prize awaits the person who has the answer.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.