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Easing nuclear tensions

Do threats produce compliance? Often yes, but it’s always a grudging compliance that lasts only as long as resistance seems futile. Lately, women have been impressing that truth on powerful men. Some get it, some don’t. My concern here is whether our country will get it as it conducts its foreign relations. If not, we may all die.

We’ve been threatening North Korea ever since we ended the Korean War without signing a peace treaty. Its primary form of resistance has been to endure immense suffering, which has gone hand-in-hand with maintaining an outsized military. Beginning in the 1980s, however, it discovered another form of resistance — the capacity to wage nuclear war.

The history of negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is complicated, but it indicates that country’s willingness to respond to gestures of non-aggression. Thus, soon after President George H.W. Bush withdrew our tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, the two Koreas signed the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Then, North Korea concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which it had committed to do when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty six years earlier. In the ensuing years, North Korea’s cooperation with IAEA inspections was spotty, varying in response to Western promises of economic aid (often broken) and impositions of economic sanctions. Cooperation was better during the Clinton years, worse during the George W. Bush years, when North Korea decided to withdraw from the NPT.

The record doesn’t promise that Western goodwill and good faith will end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but it does indicate that tensions can be eased if the U.S. wants to ease them. President Trump has signaled that he does, and we should encourage him to follow through (call 1-202-456-1111 on weekdays before 1 p.m. PDT).

A far more serious instance of reliance on threats has been U.S. behavior toward Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. I wrote about our threatening behavior before I took a break from this column, but we need to be reminded of our responsibility for creating Putin’s newly aggressive Russia.

This January, Gordon Hahn published “Broken Promise: NATO Expansion and the End of the Cold War” in the Online Journal of the Strategic Culture Foundation. After documenting the assurances that the George H.W. Bush administration made to Gorbachev that NATO would not take advantage of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, he writes of the inclusion of former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO and the rejection of Russia’s offer to join it.

Hahn concludes, “The idealistic and naive Russians of the democratic perestroika generation learned a harsh lesson from the partner they hoped for in the United States. The lone superpower ... demonstrated that Russian national security, even domestic stability, placed a distant second when it came not just to America’s maintenance of its position as world leader but also to the unlimited enhancement of U.S. power globally and especially within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.”

Regarding nuclear threats, our withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, coupled with our prolonged and intense quest for an effective missile defense system and our huge program of “modernizing” our nuclear arsenal, has forced Russia into a new nuclear Cold War. We cannot win it, but we can end it if we wish. You and I do; our government never has.

Herb Rothschild’s column runs every Saturday. This column was inadvertently omitted on March 31.