Pick almost any crisis in the world – say with Greece, Iran, or Pakistan – and you’ll likely find a deep loss of international trust at the heart of it. Yet for two decades, no crisis has cried out more for building trust than the danger from North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Doubts run deep about the secretive North. South Koreans, who have seen their neighbor break so many agreements before, simply refer to any talks with the regime as the “trust process.” Even China admits that its wily ally has “poor records” in “upholding commitments.”
Despite these qualms, the United States has decided to strike another pact with North Korea, three years after the regime abandoned multilateral talks.
In a pact announced Wednesday, North Korea promises to freeze its uranium enrichment, nuclear tests, and long-range missile tests. It will also welcome back international nuclear inspectors. In return, the US will supply 240,000 metric tons of food aid to a country suffering widespread famine.
If the North finally breaks a pattern of deceit, it could be a sign that its new leader, Kim Jong-un, seeks to reform his country and end a half century of decline caused by his grandfather and father.
The US-North Korean pact also holds out some hope that Iran may follow suit and restore the trust lost about the real purpose of its nuclear program.
Suspicions run high in the West that Iran wants a capability to build nuclear weapons. Exhibit A: Iran denies access for the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect certain nuclear or military facilities.
Such wholesale lack of trust in a country’s honesty can have huge consequences. Iran’s coverup, for example, could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Israel may preemptively attack Iranian nuclear plants.
Then there are the countries that lie about their economic statistics, posing a threat to the global economy. Greece, for example, got caught lying about the size of its debts, creating worries of a loan default and forcing Europe into a financial crisis. Spain, too, finally owned up to years of hiding government debt, also worsening the prospects for the 17-nation eurozone.
Few experts believe China’s official data about the size of loans to state-run banks and local governments. And for years, Argentina has given low figures on its inflation rate while punishing economists who calculate the rate is much higher.
The US and others fear that the Pakistani intelligence service uses the terrorist group to influence events in Afghanistan. The repercussions are that the Taliban serves as a breeding ground for international terrorists while also killing NATO soldiers.
In the art of diplomacy, trust requires many things, such as transparency, communication, dependability, and a discernment of motives. Lack of trust can lead to fear and perhaps defensive aggressiveness. Experts on trust have even tried to measure it within each country – trust toward government or between people – in hopes of fostering more of it between countries.
When nations try to restore lost trust, the world should applaud. On his recent visit to the US, for example, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping called for reducing the “trust deficit” with the US. Presumably that means each country will try to take small steps to build confidence and test the other’s level of integrity. Only then can they be willing to be vulnerable enough to accept each other’s word and make an agreement.
Trust also requires shared values and a consensus on what is “public morality,” such as the international norms on nuclear weapons. The latest agreement with North Korea might be a step in reducing the number of countries whose actions are outside such norms.
By signing the pact, the US made itself vulnerable to being used again by the North. But perhaps the US had some evidence that the new Kim in Pyongyang is different, and decided that risking a little trust might result in it being reciprocated. Trust that it will.