When multilateralism falls short

Posted: Oct 13, 2006 12:01 AM
When multilateralism falls short

Lawyers say hard cases make for bad law. That's because the hard cases are exceptions, and making a general rule based on the exception is bound to create problems. North Korea is one of those exceptionally hard cases.

Kim Jong Il would seem unrealistic even as a comic-book villain. In a world full of strange and exotic cultures, North Korea's neo-Stalinist experiment ranks as otherworldly. Try to imagine what a North Korea exhibit at Epcot Center would display: emaciated, out-of-work actors (no shortage there) eating fake tree bark while guarding a giant concentration camp where prisoners are forced to worship a guy who should be wearing a tinfoil hat at the local library. Don't forget to try the sawdust kimchi!

Proof that North Korea is a hard case can be found in the fact that the Democrats and Republicans have switched sides. Ordinarily multilateralist Democrats are now unalloyed champions of unilateralism, in the form of face-to-face negotiations with North Korea, while President Bush - that infamous go-it-alone "cowboy" - has embraced international teamwork. Both approaches are flawed for a simple reason: North Korea wants a nuclear weapon because it wants a nuclear weapon.

The Jimmy Carter vision holds that North Korea's nukes are coupons to be redeemed for groceries. But the North Koreans pocketed U.S. concessions after face-to-face talks in 1994 and continued pursuing nukes because ... they wanted nukes. Bush's strategy has been, first, to declare that advances in North Korea's nuclear program are "unacceptable" and then do nothing, and second, to insist that the U.S. can't accomplish anything because our "partners" won't cooperate.

The North Korea dilemma - much like the threat of Islamic fanaticism - is Aesopian. The frog in Aesop's fable did not wish to be stung by the scorpion. The scorpion's position? Wishing's got nothing to do with it. Americans tend to think - and Europeans consider it gospel - that all differences can be negotiated. The truth is that only negotiable problems can be negotiated. Just ask Hamas if everything can be bargained for around a table. Their one non-negotiable principle is that Israel must cease to exist. Beyond that, they're open to all sorts of creative proposals.

What's worrisome about the hard case of North Korea is that so many people see Pyongyang's intransigence as proof that the whole international community has to work together.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for multilateralism if it leads to a solution. But the rush to international solidarity rests on the assumption that working as a group is morally superior to acting alone. The belief that everything can be talked through is part of a tapestry of thought that esteems communal efforts as more legitimate than individual ones. If we can all agree on what to do, it must be right.

Initially, John Kerry's chief complaint against the Iraq war was that Bush didn't build a giant multinational coalition like his dad did, as if the argument for war depended on whether Belize and Burkina Faso agreed with us. If it was right to topple Saddam Hussein, it was right even if no one else agreed. And if it was wrong, then it was wrong even if the world was on our side. Lynch mobs aren't right because they have numbers on their side, and men who stand up to them aren't wrong because they stand alone. Multilateralism is good only to the extent that it allows us to achieve good things. To think otherwise is to confuse power-worship with principle.

There is great momentum behind calls to build a coalition through the United Nations to defang North Korea one way or another. I hope that works. But it would be folly to think that getting North Korea to disarm is only a good thing if it's won by the international community or the United Nations. President Clinton and most liberals understood this point when it came to ending genocide in Yugoslavia, and he persuaded NATO to ignore the United Nations. A great many liberals also understand it when they argue for military intervention in Darfur - with or without the U.N.'s blessing.

The U.N. gambit may well succeed (though I doubt it) because it is in the interests of just about everybody - except Iran - that North Korea's nuclear program be rolled back. But we should not take away the lesson that this hard case proves it's always better to hitch our wagon to the interests of the international community, because there are a lot more hard cases coming down the pike.

Some of them will be nonnegotiable.