Some bad ideas never die. After those who lived through the consequences of them are gone, the fallacious policies reappear, embraced by a new generation convinced it is smarter than its predecessors.
So it is with the United Nations. Last week, the international body opened for signing a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, which 122 non-nuclear UN member states adopted in July.
The point of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is to encourage the nine nuclear states – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea – to follow the UN’s lead, disarm and embrace a nuclear-free world. To mark the moment, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that the only world that is safe from the use of nuclear weapons is a world that is completely free of them.
Someone forgot to tell Kim Jong-un. His wicked regime – a former signatory to the more worthy Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – flouts international rules and norms by regularly testing missiles and nukes. As a result, there are growing fears that an accident or miscalculation could lead to nuclear war.
Pyongyang’s defiance in the face of UN naivete reminds one of Walter Lippmann’s observation that the disarmament movement of the inter-war era was “tragically successful in disarming the nations that believed in disarmament”. The leading liberal American journalist wrote that in 1943, when the illusions of disarmament had been revealed by a world war that would kill about 50 million people.
Fortunately, the permanent members of the Security Council have no truck with disarmament. When the UN adopted the treaty a few months ago, the US, Britain and France warned it “clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment” that “continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary”.
The new UN treaty’s ambition is matched only by that of the Paris Peace Pact, often referred to as the Kellogg-Briand Pact (named after the US secretary of state and French foreign minister). Signed by the UN’s forerunner the League of Nations in 1928, the international agreement banned not just certain weapons but war itself.
Like the Versailles peace treaty of 1919, Kellogg-Briand attracted great international applause. Japan and Germany were signatories. However, the treaty went down in history as just another ineffectual attempt to bring peace to the world.
Whereas Kellogg-Briand adopted a moral and legalistic stand that declared war illegal, the latest global treaty adheres to a blind commitment to disarmament. Noble ideals, to be sure; but Kellogg-Briand did not contain protocols for verification or compliance and neither does this new agreement.
Like the League of Nations, the UN simply has no way of enforcing its decisions.
The lesson here is that, for all the talk that international treaties lead to peace and harmony, they provide a false sense of security. In an anarchic world of sovereign states, nations will place their own interests before any “one-world” idealism. In Pyongyang’s case, that means developing a nuclear arsenal to deter foreign threats.
North Korea is a minor power surrounded by three major powers – China, Japan and Russia – and with an outside power – the US – that has threatened it with regime change. When Washington strikes Syria, as it did in April, or helps topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 or Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, it gives Pyongyang a very powerful incentive to keep its nuclear weapons.
You might think all this strengthens the case for trying to reach some sort of modus vivendi with the Hermit Kingdom. But President Trump is bent on getting even tougher with Pyongyang than his predecessors. That is only going to make the North Korean regime more determined to keep its nuclear arsenal, and even expand it.
Kim Jong-un is a brutal dictator whose recent conduct has been reckless. But he is neither irrational nor suicidal. His primary interest is to ensure the survival of his regime.
The idea that the tyrant will jettison his nation’s nuclear deterrent is fanciful. Neither tighter sanctions nor threats of pre-emptive military strikes will disarm the regime.
What to do? Writing in Quadrant recently, historian Philip Ayres suggests world leaders should gradually bring in Pyongyang from the diplomatic cold and put to an end the frozen state of war that neither side won in 1953 or can win today.
Although this solution – which entails the tacit acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-armed power – will be humiliating to the West, it has now become the only plausible solution to the nuclear crisis. To admit this could be a step towards realism.
Meanwhile, absent an attempt to work out a political settlement with Pyongyang – which does not seem feasible given the current political climate in Washington, Canberra and elsewhere – the US has no choice but to contain a nuclear North Korea as best it can.
As any sound realist will testify, deterrence is what you can do when you can’t disarm your adversary. But deterrence works only if you have a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent.
Tom Switzer is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.
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