Nukes and More Nukes

Sunday, October 15, 2006

THE MOST critical question following North Korea's reported nuclear test is whether anything can be done to stop other states or terrorist groups from acquiring such weapons in coming years. Can North Korea be prevented from exporting its nukes? Is the world entering an era in which nuclear war will be virtually inevitable? Based on the response to North Korea last week, the outlook isn't good.

Weaker countries, such as Libya, can still be bribed or bluffed into giving up a weapons program that hasn't advanced very far. A new international protocol on the production of nuclear materials is a possibility worth pursuing. But states such as North Korea and Iran can be stopped only if a powerful coalition of countries emerges against them, combining the United States and Europe with Russia, China and regional powers.

The five countries that have tried to bargain with North Korea over its nuclear program -- China, South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States -- could have stopped the North Korean program and could reverse it still: Among them they have the capacity to force the collapse of the Kim Jong Il dictatorship. A similar coalition probably could stop Iran. But to do so, nuclear counterproliferation has to become those governments' highest priority. They have to be willing to make sacrifices and take risks.

As the diplomacy at the United Nations last week once again demonstrated, neither China nor Russia regard stopping the spread of nuclear weapons as essential. Both voted yesterday in support of a resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea, and talks will begin this week on a sanctions resolution aimed at Iran. But both Beijing and Moscow have worked to water down the measures, narrowing the list of sanctions and eliminating references to force. In doing so they have illuminated the priorities that for them matter more than limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

China, though angry at North Korea, still finds it more important to preserve Mr. Kim's regime than to disarm it. Chinese officials reasonably worry about a destabilizing flood of refugees in the event the Kim dictatorship collapses. More cynically, they continue to see the regime as a means of containing U.S. influence in Asia. Beijing's view of Iran is similarly instrumental: It is a valuable source of energy and a check on the United States.

Russia is even less responsible as a partner in counterproliferation. The government of Vladimir Putin seems to have returned to the Soviet view of international relations as a zero-sum game with the United States. Any gain for U.S. policy is to be resisted or balanced with a concession in return.

So Russia agreed Thursday to support the U.N. sanctions resolution on North Korea -- but only after extracting U.S. agreement to another Security Council resolution about its neighbor, Georgia. The resolution extended the mandate of U.N. observers -- and legitimized the continued presence of Russian troops -- in two breakaway regions of Georgia and referred to "militant rhetoric and provocative actions" by Georgia's pro-Western democratic government.

In fact, it is Mr. Putin who is engaged in a militant and provocative campaign against his tiny neighbor: He has banned trade, closed transportation links and cracked down on Georgian-owned businesses in Moscow. He's willing to make a gesture toward preventing a world that bristles with nuclear weapons, but only if he can get some help in his attempt to crush a government that resists Russia's neo-imperialism. If such politics continue to underlie counterproliferation, we can expect a much more dangerous world.

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