The tendency of politicians to exaggerate the prospects of success, to flee the taking of tough stands, and to downplay the dangers of the dark clouds into which they insist upon steering is as much with us today as it was a century ago.
North Korea’s testing of a nuclear bomb, the second in just over two years, and its companion firing of a test missile, illustrates with convincing evidence just show how inept the West has been in the handling of the nuclear genie. More evidence was hardly needed, however. When it comes to nuclear proliferation, the pattern is entirely predictable. Worries are expressed that some power is trying to obtain material to make a nuclear device. Alarms are next sounded that they are in the process of making it. Much debate ensues as to whether that is possible or how far away it could be. Then, one day, the world awakens to discover that a country has just tested its first atomic bomb, much sooner, of course, than the experts predicted. So it was with India and Pakistan and China. It has been the same with North Korea. And it will soon be that way in another global flashpoint. If you were bothered by the reports about North Korea today, just substitute that country’s name with Iran and you will have some idea about the insanity that has taken the world’s leaders into its grip and the terror to which we will in all likelihood, at some other dawn, awaken.
When North Korea agreed two years ago to abandon its nuclear program for hundreds of millions in cash, there was a sense of relief in many quarters, along with wonderment over the negotiating skills of the United States. A greater degree of skepticism would have been appropriate. Psychopaths, as we called them here in 2006, are in charge in Pyongyang, but they are clever psychopaths. Now they have the money and the bomb. And a lot more leverage to demand greater concessions.
For their part, the governance systems of the civilized world seem hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the madness that consumes Asia’s frozen north or is daily evident in Iran’s dash to acquire the bomb. Western governments never seem to have a fully accurate intelligence picture. They always overrate their successes and underrate how short-lived they will be. They play into the opposite side’s game of dragging things out, which typically inures to the advantage of rogue states and ill-intended minds. When it comes to dealing with Iran or North Korea-or China, for that matter, which enjoys playing both sides in the conflict between North Korea and the West and arguably has more influence on that miscreant state than any other country-there are always many more Neville Chamberlains in the room, willing to appease and to assuage, than there are Winston Churchills. Few, even today, can match Churchill’s uncommon prescience in anticipating the rise of global troublemakers or his exceptional grasp that strength and determination are the only language that tyrants fully comprehend.
None of the foregoing is to suggest that the North Korean issue is easily solved. But the task of tackling it needs to be guided by a better understanding of history than has been demonstrated to date.
Twice in the span of slightly more than a generation, beginning with the run-up to World War I in the early 1900s and then during the rise of Nazism in the 1930s leading to World War II, the West and its leaders were essentially in denial over the storms of global belligerence and intolerance that were swirling around them. They turned a blind eye to the early years of the century’s most infamous holocaust. The iron curtain of Communism prompted little outrage as it made its slow descent over Eastern Europe. More recently, world leaders slumbered as the atrocities in Bosnia and Darfur occurred and intervention was long overdue. In all of these events, where the fateful overtures of disaster and decisiveness competed on the world’s stage for the affections of leaders and public opinion, and strong action could have averted larger calamities, those in command professed that they had the answers. But the endings were rarely as advertised. The tendency of politicians to exaggerate the prospects of success, to flee the taking of tough stands, and to downplay the dangers of the dark clouds into which they insist upon steering is as much with us today as it was a century ago.
We cannot know the future, as Churchill was apt to remind, but we can be certain, as the seismic jolt from North Korea illustrates today, that the same short-sighted approach taken by the guardians of freedom and democracy will continue to produce the same shocking horrors that ultimately prove more costly than anyone ever imagined. Imagination is an infrequent companion among leaders of any era and rarely marches along side their more fleeting attributes, which is why the ability to envision the unthinkable, for good and for ill, has always been a defining attribute of transformative figures like Churchill, Gandhi, King and Jefferson. It will take much more than we have seen so far to alter history’s frequently recurring trajectory of madness and push would-be nuclear despots as far away from the trigger of obliteration as humanly possible.