While most thinking people understand that the Bush Administration’s foreign policies have been disastrous, they probably underestimate how hard it will be to undo their effects and how influential their underlying assumptions have become over the last six years. For thirty years the US managed, with considerable difficulty, to maintain critical political footholds in the Middle East by cultivating moderate Arab regimes and encouraging peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now the peace process seems dead (in large part because President Bush in 2002 announced that Israel would be able to annex as much territory as it could settle), we have alienated all the Arab peoples and many of their regimes, and Arab Iraq within ten years will probably be ruled by one or two fundamentalist dictatorships. More troubling still, however, is the way neoconservative thought has become mainstream—most notably in everyone’s reaction to the North Korean purported test of a nuclear weapon and to the Iranian nuclear program.
For at least the firsts thirty years of the nuclear age, our diplomatic positions reflected sound and impartial principles. In 1945, after thirty years of intermittent world conflict, the United States remained committed to a world of sovereign states. The Atlantic Charter of 1941, the foundation of our war aims, simply called for a world in which nations would be free to choose their own form of government, and the UN Charter guaranteed the territorial integrity of all UN members and banned war except in self-defense. The United States attacked the problem of nuclear weapons (which we had created) within this framework. Initially it called for international control of atomic energy and general nuclear disarmament, but the Soviets rejected that plan. During the 1950s the Eisenhower Administration appeared to accept (and even promote) the spread of nuclear weapons, but during the 1960s Democratic and Republican administrations took two huge steps to stop their spread: the Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1969. Under the latter treaty, the existing nuclear powers (with the exceptions of France and China, who signed much later, and Israel, which has never acknowledged its status) promised not to spread nuclear weapons, and those non-nuclear states who signed promised not to acquire them. But the treaty also included (and still includes) an obligation for the existing nuclear powers to work for general nuclear disarmament. Strategic arms treaties were the only step the Soviets (and later Russians) and Americans took in that direction.
Since the 1990s India and Pakistan have become full-fledged members of the nuclear club, and North Korea now claims to have joined them. (We would be wise, I think, to await indisputable scientific confirmation that their test was nuclear before treating this as a certainty. Communist regimes have bluffed before.) The Bush Administration has not only called the accession of North Korea and Iran to the club unacceptable on numerous occasions but has also publicly threatened to overthrow any hostile regime that seeks nuclear weapons. Everyone seems to have forgotten that we have no legal basis for making claims like this.
No binding, permanent international law forbids nations from developing any weapon they choose. They can, indeed, renounce weapons by treaty, but the Non-proliferation treaty can, as the North Koreans should have reminded us, be denounced. (The Iranians remain a party.) The argument our government has been making, and which no political figure of either party seems willing to challenge head on, is that nuclear weapons should be limited to nations whom we think should have them. It is, in short, a claim by the United States to rule the world, at least so far as this area of military weaponry goes. And it is not surprising, of course, that when the Bush Administration—at the height of its confidence in American military power—put North Korea and Iran within the “axis of evil” and proclaimed the demise of their governments as a goal of American foreign policy, at least one of those two governments decided that it had better acquire nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
Three huge problems, it seems to me, come out of this position. First of all, we have abandoned the dream of establishing rules for every nation to live by (as we have also done with respect to torture), and substituted the old Athenian rule (which did not save Athens from catastrophe), “the strong do what they will and the weak do what they must.” But the second problem is more practical: no other nation is likely to accept this in the long run. While our European allies on the one hand, and our Asian allies on the other, have agreed that Iran and North Korea should not develop nuclear weapons and have tried diplomatically (that is, in a manner that acknowledges those nations’ freedom of action) to dissuade them from doing so, they have not agreed that we have a right to make war to stop them. And the third problem is similar to the one that has emerged in Iraq: we cannot carry out grandiose schemes for remaking the world without real coalitions such as the one George H. W. Bush put together in 1990-1 to liberate Kuwait. In short, our new policy fails as an impartial moral guide to behavior, lacks significant international support, and cannot, for those very reasons, be successfully executed.
Our whole foreign policy establishment seems to be drunk on the idea of the United States as the world’s strongest power, capable, in theory, of achieving everything it wants. I am not aware of any elected official who has bluntly stated that the transformation of Iraq was beyond our capabilities and should never have been attempted—but that is, I think, a fact. In the same way, I have not heard anyone acknowledge, as our own government did in 1965, that if we want other nations to forsake nuclear weapons we must in principle at least agree eventually to abandon them ourselves. Since the United States, Israel, and the nations of Western Europe seem at this moment to be at by far the greatest risk of a nuclear attack and will never have any real defense against a terrorist strike, I do not think that this would be an unwise goal to adopt. And it was in fact endorsed, repeatedly, by one postwar American President. His name was Ronald Reagan.