You cannot blame America for everything. It just might be, as the BBC often seems to believe, that had George W. Bush and Tony Blair not invaded Iraq all would be different. Repressive regimes everywhere would have recast themselves into cuddly, peace-loving democracies. North Korea’s Kim Jong-il would have hammered missiles into ploughshares to feed his destitute people. Somehow I doubt it.Tyranny pre-dated Mr Bush and will outlast him. So, too, will the quest by dangerous leaders to secure unconventional weapons. North Korea’s self-styled Dear Leader was accumulating fissile material and deceiving Bill Clinton, then US president, long before Mr Bush’s speechwriters gave him that fateful phrase about an axis of evil.
That said, Washington cannot complain when everything bad that happens around the world is seen through the prism of what the US might have done to avert it. If you are the world’s sole superpower, brickbats come with the territory: the more so when you declare you will never brook any challenge. Most of the world is in an anti-American frame of mind these days; it still expects America to keep it safe.
The grievous foreign policy mistakes made by this administration, notably but not exclusively in Iraq, have made that task harder. In a hubristic quest for hegemony, the White House has surrendered moral leadership. It has also exposed the limits of its power. America alone has the capacity for decisive intervention almost anywhere in the world. But the chaos in Iraq and the defiance of North Korea and Iran have offered a salutary lesson that it cannot act alone.
This is by way of necessary preamble to North Korea’s claim to have become the world’s ninth nuclear state by testing an atomic device. It is still not clear that the detonation was successful. Some western diplomats speculate that, like the failure of a long-range rocket launch earlier this year, the nuclear test showed that the regime’s technology is far from cutting edge. Much the same is said of Iran’s assumed efforts to build a bomb.
I am not sure we should take much comfort. Atomic bombs are atomic bombs. Those exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hopelessly crude compared with those in the present US arsenal. They were nonetheless devastating in their impact.
Confirmation that North Korea has crossed the nuclear threshold would expose the rest of the world to an array of dangers. Narrowly, they lie in the sheer unpredictability of a regime locked in a cold war time warp; more broadly in the destabilising effect throughout the region and beyond.
One obviously troubling question is how long before Japan, South Korea and Taiwan decide they cannot rely on the US nuclear umbrella for their own security? Japan, for all the latest thaw in its relations with Beijing, already feels threatened by China’s rise. Conventional wisdom has it that Tokyo would need between two and six weeks – yes, weeks – to build its own nuclear device.
Washington can do little more to coerce North Korea. Sanctions may well have encouraged Mr Kim in his nuclear quest. The financial squeeze imposed last year by the US Treasury strangled the, albeit, slim prospect of a deal that would have swapped security guarantees for the closure of the nuclear programme.
It is still important that the United Nations Security Council agrees to tougher, multilateral sanctions. If the international non-proliferation regime is to stand any chance of surviving, transgressors must be punished. But that is not to say wider sanctions will have much effect on North Korea.
China has the capacity to bring down Mr Kim. It is often said it should cut off supplies of food and fuel. To the contrary, instead of closing its border, it would be better to open it – allowing starving North Koreans to flee into China in their millions. The regime would implode, as happened in East Germany after Hungary opened its borders in 1989.
For all its irritation this week – it called the test “brazen” and said it will back a measured punitive response – Beijing shows no sign of contemplating such a course. Almost as much as the US, China has been humiliated by Pyongyang. But Beijing’s judgment seems to be that a unified Korea would be a still bigger threat. A powerful case can be made otherwise. In any event, China’s reflexes belong to a bygone era, a fact that will become dangerously obvious if Japan seeks its own deterrent.
China needs to rethink the way it looks at the world, and at its own role, if it is to connect its strategic priorities with its new-found economic power. As has been said before in this column, Beijing’s foreign policy is stranded in a curious no man’s land. It is loath to give up the principles of non-alignment and non-interference that have served as its lodestars for the past several decades; but it wants recognition of its status as a resurgent great power.
At some point it will have to choose and to recognise that its economic power has reshaped its strategic interests. Locked away, China could afford to play the role of champion of the developing world. As a great power, it has a much bigger stake, economic and strategic, in building a stable international order. That stability would be fatally undermined by nuclear proliferation.
Asking China to make such a change would require an equally radical shift from the US. To persuade China to be a responsible player in the international system demands that the US actually commit itself to that system. Mr Bush speaks often now of the “international community”. But his administration, as John Bolton, its ambassador to the UN, freely admits, still dines à la carte from the multilateralist menu. Why should it expect China to do any different?
I suspect that we are a long way from the grand bargain between the US and China that the above implies. There are too many people in Washington who believe that conflict with a rising China is inevitable; and too many in Beijing who are inclined to agree with them. But the truth is that both have a huge interest in creating a new global order.
Forty-three years ago, as the then five nuclear powers signed the first test ban treaty, John F. Kennedy predicted that, within a decade, up to 25 states might have the bomb. That he was proved wrong owed much to the international co-operation that instead produced the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That treaty is now being tested to destruction. Unless it is rescued soon, the next decade could well see the realisation of Kennedy’s dire prediction.
不能把一切都归咎于美国。也许真如英国广播公司(BBC)往往认为的那样，如果布什(George W. Bush)和布莱尔(Tony Blair)没有入侵伊拉克，一切都会不同。各地的专制政权都会把自己重塑可爱、和平的民主国家。朝鲜的金正日(Kim Jong-il)也会把导弹打造成犁锄，来养活其贫困的国民。我对此表示怀疑。