We are faced today with the second provocative warlike act committed in recent times by North Korea. The first of these, the torpedoing of a South Korean warship, was covert: the origin was deliberately disguised. But the consequences were overt and painful. This current action is clearly overt. The origin of Tuesday’s attack is identified beyond a shadow of doubt. It is an outrageous action that could qualify even as an act of war.
This raises fundamental questions. If these actions are deliberate it is an indication that the North Korean regime has reached a point of insanity. Its calculations and its actions are difficult to fathom in rational terms. Alternatively it is a sign that the regime is out of control. Different elements in Pyongyang, including parts of the military, are capable of taking actions on their own perhaps, without central co-ordination. That is an even more ominous possibility.
So what is the world to do with a problem that has long vexed the major powers without a hint of resolution? Here we enter another realm of uncertainty because it is increasingly apparent that we are dealing with a clash of two alternative historical perspectives between the two major powers indirectly involved and actively engaged, namely the US and China.
In the case of China we are dealing with a regime that is historically self-confident. It perceives tectonic shifts in the distribution of global power as ultimately favourable to its prospects. It senses its power is growing and this leads to a posture of great self-restraint, even passivity and reluctance to rock the boat.
The other major power concerned with these events – the US – is in a rather different historical phase. Public discussion is increasingly dominated by the perspective that historical trends are against America. And so Washington is preoccupied with the need to mobilise a collective response and is frustrated by the relative unwillingness of others to share with it cumbersome responsibilities.
Making matters worse, America is bogged down largely alone in a prolonged decade-long misadventure in an area ranging from the Middle East proper to south-west Asia. More recently, some major US diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the Middle East were successfully defied by a state totally dependent on America.
In these circumstances there is a real risk we may find ourselves in a situation where the Chinese favour an under-reaction that will simply lead to further acts of provocation, and where America may be inclined to push for a response that the Chinese will see as a dangerous overreaction.
It is important that President Barack Obama displays cool, firm and globally visible personal leadership in working with China and the other major parties in the six-party talks. If I were back in the situation room in the White House asking myself what I would advise the president, this is what I would do.
The president has to take the initiative. Provocation of this kind cannot be dismissed lightly or left in the hands of diplomats. He should call President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea to reassure him personally and directly of US support. Then he should call President Hu Jintao of China and express serious concern. He should call Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan, as America’s prime ally in the Pacific and given its proximity to the Korean conundrum. He should also call President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, should then follow up on these calls and set in motion convening the United Nations Security Council.
North Korea has been defiantly challenging the international community in a way that Saddam Hussein was not, at least overtly, and which the Iranians are not quite doing. The Iranians are maintaining, maybe mendaciously, that they are not seeking nuclear weapons. That is a different kind of challenge in which our response has to be the insistence that they prove their case. The North Koreans, however, are defiant, boasting their nuclear prowess and now openly provocative.
One of the things we have to discuss in these conversations is the possibility of a selectively punitive embargo on North Korea in the area of high-tech and energy. This would be a tempest in a teapot were it not for the fact that Pyongyang has nuclear weapons and some manifestations of insanity in the regime.
Critically, however, our approach to China should not be adversarial. It is not in America’s nor China’s interest to create massive popular hostility. Governmental disagreements can be managed: they are the stock of international affairs. But if you arouse public emotions, such crises become harder to control and dangerous.
A call from Mr Obama to Mr Hu should be a call between leaders who share a concern. It should not be an American demand, nor an admonition. It should be an affirmation that our respective interests are endangered and so we have a common stake in an effective response.
The writer was US National Security Adviser from 1977-1981