During the Clinton administration, which of these deserving nations became the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the Asia-Pacific region?
(a) The Philippines, longtime friend and ally.
(b) Indonesia, moderate, Muslim and developing.
(c) Cambodia, impoverished and rebuilding.
(d) North Korea, a deranged Stalinist dictatorship that feeds its million-man army while starving its people, that sells ballistic missiles to America's worst enemies and that is building nuclear weapons.
Did I tip my hand?
The great divide in American foreign policy thinking is between those who believe in paper and those who believe in power. The paper school was in charge of the 1990s.
In the 1990s the main objective of Clinton foreign policy was to get as many signatures as possible on as many pieces of paper as possible promising peace and brotherhood. There was a mania for treaties -- on chemical and biological weapons, nuclear proliferation and testing, land mines, antiballistic missiles, climate control. And, of course, treaties with mortal enemies.
One of the proudest achievements of the Clinton administration was the Agreed Framework with North Korea. Clinton assured us that it froze the North Korean nuclear program. North Korea gave us a piece of paper promising to freeze; we gave North Korea 500,000 tons of free oil every year and set about building -- also for free -- two huge $2 billion nuclear power plants that supposedly could be used only to produce electricity. Japan and South Korea were induced to give tons of foreign aid as well, Clinton being the committed multilateralist, even in extortion.
It turns out the North Koreans took the loot and lied. Surprise! All the while they were enriching uranium. They now brazenly admit to having a nuclear weapons program and other weapons of mass destruction.
Jimmy Carter just won a Nobel Peace Prize for, among other things, his 1994 intervention with the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung that led to this agreement. Carter had returned from his talks in Pyongyang declaring, "The crisis is over." He was missing only the umbrella. (Carter also enthused that "there is an incredible reverence and exaltation of President Kim Il Sung," author of one of the most grotesque police states in all of history.)
At the time, the New York Times enthusiastically applauded this achievement of peace in our time ("Nuclear Breakthrough in Korea") and praised "U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci and his North Korean interlocutors" for having "defied impatient hawks and other skeptics who accused the Clinton administration of gullibility and urged swifter, stronger action."
At the time, in this space, I called the agreement "worse than dangerous, it is shameful" and suggested that it should have been signed on the battleship Missouri, as it amounted to unconditional surrender.
Eight years and a few North Korean nukes later, the Times has seen the light. It concludes a deeply disappointed editorial with this priceless discovery: "Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of dictators who want them requires more than signed agreements."
The North Korean fiasco was not the only Clintonian attempt at paper diplomacy. The bloodiest farce was the Oslo "peace" between Israel and the Palestinians. President Clinton insisted that it be signed on the White House lawn under his upraised arms. He then spent the next seven years brokering one new agreement after another while declaring the peace irreversible. He knew it was so because Yasser Arafat had promised -- in writing -- an end to violence and terrorism. Then Arafat decided to start up the violence and terrorism in September 2000, bringing on the worst Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed in this hundred-year war and leaving the Clinton paper-pushers surprised.
This is not that hard to figure out. Living by paper -- contracts and laws and courts and binding agreements -- is lovely. It's what makes domestic society civilized and decent. The problem is that the international arena is not domestic society. It is a jungle. It is a state of nature. At home, autoworkers make peace with GM with a signed agreement. That doesn't work with Kim Il Sung, or with his deranged son Kim Jong Il.
Agreements with them or Arafat or Saddam Hussein are not worth the paper they are written on. Laboring over every jot and tittle -- the life work of our paper-pushing peace processors -- is quite mad. The beginning of wisdom is giving up this supremely naive belief in paper.
It is not the end of wisdom, to be sure. It does not answer all questions. But it will keep us from repeating the disasters of the delusional '90s, disasters that haunt our sleep now and will haunt us for decades to come.