by Bruce Thornton
The high cost of clinging to our superstitions and myths about our superior knowledge.
Last week North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, this one a 10-kiloton, miniaturized warhead that can be put on a missile. If North Korean claims are true, this successful test, along with the 20 long-range missile tests conducted this year, shows that a rogue thug state is on the brink of being able to send a nuclear-tipped missile as far as Chicago. President Obama responded with the usual empty diplomatic bluster, threatening “additional significant steps, including new sanctions to demonstrate to North Korea that there are consequences to its unlawful and dangerous actions.” Once again, the magical thinking of international diplomacy puts our national interests and security in mortal danger.
We’re well beyond a century’s worth of the delusional idealism of what historian Corelli Barnett calls “moralizing internationalism.” This is the notion that non-violent diplomatic “engagement,” economic sanctions, and transnational covenants and institutions like the U.N. can deter or stop aggression without a credible threat to use force.
A particularly surreal version of this stubborn belief appeared in early 1914, in the British National Peace Council Peace Yearbook:
Peace, the babe of the nineteenth century, is the strong youth of the twentieth century; for War, the product of anarchy and fear, is passing away under the growing and persistent pressure of world organization, economic necessity, human intercourse, and that change of spirit, that social sense and newer aspect of worldwide life which is the insistent note, the Zeitgeist of the age.A few months later the world exploded into the gruesome carnage wrought by trench warfare, machine guns, poison gas, and a billion artillery shells fired. Despite that horrific lesson, the victors, still in thrall to the same internationalist delusions, created the League of Nations. The League spent twenty years in diplomatic chatter, feeble sanctions, and feckless appeasement that culminated in 60 million dead in World War II. Followed, of course by the creation of the U.N., yet another feckless and corrupt manifestation of historical amnesia.
Seventy years later we still haven’t learned anything. The history of the West’s attempts to keep North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon is a depressing chronicle of diplomatic failure. Consider just two years of that history:
- In 1991, President George H.W. Bush withdrew 100 nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev.
- A few months later, the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed, under which both countries agreed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing.”
- The next year the North signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and allowed in inspectors.
- In March 1992, the U.S. had to impose sanctions on two companies in the North involved in developing missiles in violation of these signed treaties. In June new sanctions were imposed, and in September the International Atomic Energy Agency found discrepancies in North Korea’s initial report on its nuclear program.
- In February 1993, the IAEA demanded inspections of two nuclear waste sites. The North refused, and the next month threatened to withdraw from the NPT. After talks in New York, at which the U.S. offered the North a light-water nuclear reactor, the North suspended its withdrawal. Late that year, the CIA estimated that North Korea had separated 12 kilograms of plutonium, enough for two weapons.
No one should have been surprised, as the whole history of arms control efforts going back to the first Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 comprises the same catalogue of duplicity and cheating on one side, and misplaced idealism and failure of nerve on the other. Another constant weakness of diplomatic idealism since the 19th century is the West’s mistaken belief that the whole world wants what we want and will play by our rules to get it. We cannot imagine that there are peoples and leaders who prefer aggression to coexistence, or supremacism to tolerance, or violence to peace. We are addled by our modern superstition that the “human sciences” have learned the secret springs of human behavior, and that with this knowledge we can improve people and help them abandon their outmoded and irrational traditions and cultures and religious beliefs. We especially reject the old wisdom that, as Machiavelli put it, “all men are bad and . . . will use their malignity of mind every time they have the opportunity.” Once we’ve moved beyond this crude belief––the truth of which is documented on every page of history and in every daily newspaper––then will come the age of global peace and cooperation outlined in the 1914 Peace Yearbook.
Thus mired as we are in the received wisdom of international diplomacy based on such idealism, we continue to make the same errors despite the long record of its bloody failure.
Take Russia. The Trumpophobes are currently hysterical over Trump’s overly conciliatory comments about Vladimir Putin. Yet Obama’s appeasing deeds have emboldened Putin more than Trump’s careless words. In 2006, Hillary Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister with a plastic “reset” button labeled with the wrong Russian word. To achieve the improved relations sought by the “reset,” in 2009 Obama dropped plans to install missile interceptors and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, something Russia vehemently opposed. This appeasing gesture was followed up in 2012 by the infamous hot mic pledge to outgoing Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after the election to address Russia’s continuing displeasure with antimissile defense. Medvedev assured the president he would pass the kind words on to incoming president Putin.
All this diplomatic “outreach” and “concession” has achieved is Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, its virtual occupation of eastern Ukraine, and its dominating presence in the Middle East that it hasn’t had since Anwar Sadat kicked the Soviets out of Egypt in 1972. But once again, this president and his foreign policy team still cling to the diplomatic magical thinking that more talk and more concessions will change an aggressor’s behavior. The result has been a drastic reduction in America’s global prestige, one perhaps best symbolized the other day by China’s contemptuous refusal to provide a staircase so that the leader of the most powerful nation in history could exit his airplane.
Of course, the deal with Iran is one of the worst examples of such delusions of diplomacy. It is obvious that Iran carefully studied the North Korean playbook and employed the same tactics to gull the West and bring itself to the brink of nuclear capability. But the danger from Iran far outstrips that from North Korea. The latter is a thugocracy run for the pleasure and profit of the Kim dynasty and its playboy leader. It is unlikely to risk annihilation of its wealth and privilege by using its bombs, especially when the mere existence of its nuclear arsenal is enough to neutralize the West.
But the theocracy of Iran is a different matter. It follows an apocalyptic sect of Islam that believes a hidden redeemer called the Mahdi will arise after a global conflict that kills a third of the world’s peoples. Then the Mahdi will, in the words of Ali, the reputed founder of Shia Islam, “conquer the whole world. All would enter the fold of religion willingly or unwillingly. He would fill the earth with justice, equity and proof. No disbeliever will remain without accepting the faith.” Iran’s rulers have long believed that these end times can be hastened by violent aggression, starting with the Iranian Revolution. The possession of nuclear weapons will obviously bring such dreams closer to reality. Smug Western secularists may dismiss such irrationality, but it would be a dangerous foreign policy gamble not to take the mullahs at their word and allow them to acquire nuclear weapons.
Once again we so-called moderns, “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,” as Chesterton put it, cling to our own superstitions and myths about our superior knowledge, even as we ignore the wisdom of the past and the lessons of history. The ancient Greeks called this hubris. The nemesis that punishes such arrogance is likely to be devastating.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.