- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

Should the United States begin one-on-one talks with North Korea, Iran or the Palestinian Authority? This is an issue the Bush administration’s new foreign-policy team will have to address in the months ahead. The wisdom of negotiating with adversaries became a bone of contention during the presidential debates; Sen. John Kerry took President Bush to task for failing to “engage” North Korea directly, and the president responded that bilateral discussions would be a big mistake.

History provides a foundation for the president’s position — up to a point. It tells us that unless disputes are “ripe” for resolution — that is, unless the domestic or international context governing the fundamental interests of at least one of the parties has changed materially — neither bilateral nor multilateral negotiations will resolve fundamental differences.

During the Cold War, despite numerous summits between the superpowers — some of which ended badly — the Soviet-American relationship changed fundamentally because of Russia’s faltering economy and the unsustainable burden of empire. Washington’s relations with Beijing matured following the failed Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Soviet dispute.

Libya provides a contemporary example. Years of isolation, a collapsed economy and recognition that nuclear weapons would actually increase the country’s vulnerability to an Iraq-like demise prompted Col. Moammar Gadhafi to concede his nuclear ambitions in secret negotiations with U.S. and British representatives. In exchange, Tripoli’s international pariah status came to an end.

These historical examples beg the question: Do recent events open a window of opportunity to resolve today’s critical troubles? The Israeli-Palestinian situation appears to be the brightest prospect. An unreliable negotiating partner, Yasser Arafat was unwilling or unable to prepare his people for the inevitable concessions peace required. The best efforts at Camp David and Taba failed. His passing comes at a time of increasing Israeli disenchantment over the occupation of Palestinian lands — a fatigue demonstrated by the planned Gaza withdrawal. This clearly opens the window for U.S. diplomacy to get the parties onto the administration’s road map to peace.

This cannot be said of the North Korean case. The negotiation record has been long but not fruitful. The 1994 Agreed Framework between Washington and Pyongyang promised to end the North’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic and peaceful nuclear assistance. Late in his administration,President Clinton ramped up diplomacy by sending Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to visit North Korea.

Upon assuming office, Mr. Bush brushed aside the Clinton efforts by denying Secretary of State Colin Powell’s request to follow them up. As it turned out, his instincts were correct. Early in Mr. Bush’s tenure U.S. intelligence established that North Korea was cheating on the Agreed Framework. However, the finding did not end diplomacy. While the Bush team refused to revisit bilateral talks, it did convene multilateral negotiations hoping that that the collective pressure and incentives promoted by China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — along with the United States — would move the regime off its nuclear course. Instead, stalemate resulted. Unlike Libya, North Korea has not crossed a tipping point that would allow it to give up the bomb. That point may come only with the demise of the Communist regime.

Britain, France and Germany hope Iran does not require contextual change to drop its nuclear-fuel-cycle ambitions. They trust that economic and political incentives will suffice. However, Iran remains publicly adamant that it will not surrender the right to uranium enrichment. The position has given the mullahs a domestic political bonus, as public support has rallied.

International factors also have come into play. By recently striking a large oil deal with China and dangling the possibility of more commercial reactor sales to Russia, Tehran has cultivated the favor of two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council capable of blocking sanctions. Absent the replacement of Iran’s revolutionary regime by a more nonproliferation-compliant government that promoted regional peace, abstained from terror and normalized relations with the United States, the time is not yet ripe for meaningful negotiations betweenWashingtonand Tehran.

History suggests that we should temper our expectations. At best international security negotiations can reduce tensions and buy time. But in the absence of contextual changes in Iran and North Korea that resolve fundamental differences, we must fashion an alternative strategy. The Cold War containment template offers a model. In 1948, the diplomatic architect, George Kennan, called upon the United States “to increase enormously the strains under which the Soviet policy must operate.” In time, the policy brought dramatic results.

Today, strains are patently evident in both Pyongyang and Tehran. Patiently executed, military and economic containment remains the winning card that the Bush administration ought to play. Ripeness will follow.

Bennett Ramberg served in the Department of State’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the first Bush administration.

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