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[In-depth interview]U.S. foreign policy’s hardline gets softer

‘The issues that confront the world today... ― North Korea and Iran in particular ― are questions that have two competing policies in the Bush administration.’

Mar 07,2007
John Ikenberry
The Bush administration’s foreign policy, particularly concerning North Korea, has been shaped and influenced by neoconservatives for the past six years, but it is clear that their influence has dwindled, John Ikenberry, an international relations expert from Princeton University, said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on Feb. 27. He said that traditional American .diplomacy, focusing on dialogue and pragmatism, has been revived.
However, he said it is too early to call it a fundamental shift because changes are taking place slowly and tentatively for now.
Mr. Ikenberry met with Kim Young-hie, JoongAng Ilbo’s editor-at-large, on the sidelines of a conference held by the Seoul Forum on International Affairs.
John Ikenberry is a prominent theorist of international relations and U.S. foreign policy, and a professor. He is known for his criticism of what he calls the Bush administration’s “neo-imperial grand strategy.” He has warned that the strategy will alienate American allies and bring about international backlash, such as terror attacks, rather than succeeding in its “war on terrorism” and maintaining international peace.

Q. In a 2002 article in Foreign Affairs, you wrote that in the shadow of the war on terrorism, the Bush administration might be formulating a grand strategy to restructure a unipolar world with a neo-imperial vision. Has the Iraq war borne out your thesis?
A. Yes, I believe it has. The Bush administration officials had a very distinctive neoconservative view of the world. September 11 provided the vehicle for that view to become the dominant force behind the Bush administration’s unilateralism and preemptive use of force. Ultimately an activist foreign policy [means] overturning regimes that are threats to the United States.

So, do you think the heyday of the neoconservatives is over?
I think that mostly, the big issues that confront the world today, certainly the United States ― North Korea, Iran in particular ― are questions that have two competing policies in the Bush administration. One, neoconservative views that primarily see overturning or changing the nature of regimes as a goal ― this has slowly receded into history, ultimately following the failure in Iraq and the departure of several key officials with that view.

You’ve noted that overwhelming U.S. military power, combined with a policy of preemptive strikes, could lead hostile states to accelerate programs to acquire their only possible deterrent against the U.S., namely, weapons of mass destruction. Does this apply to North Korea too?
We don’t know for sure of course. But there are many complex reasons why they may require weapons. In the case of North Korea, the efforts began before September 11, before the Bush administration. If the ultimate goal of the regime is survival, and the leading power in the world has made it a national security doctrine to overturn that regime, deterrence has become the ultimate insurance policy for the regime’s survival.

The U.S.-North Korea talks in Berlin, which paved the way for the North’s return to the six-party talks, was a noteworthy departure from the Bush administration’s rejection of direct talks with the North. Does this signal a basic shift in the Bush administration’s foreign policy?
Certainly, the realist and more traditional foreign policy thinking that was associated with Colin Powell and a traditional state department approach has made a comeback due to the failure of the other side. That is clearly part of the story of the pragmatic use of diplomacy and willingness to talk. But it is not necessarily fully developed. There are still debates within the administration; when it comes to Iran, there is still a reluctance to aggressively pursue direct talks. Too early to call it a basic shift.

Will economic rewards for North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear programs work?
The approach with North Korea is to put pressure on the North and talk with them. Squeeze and talk. The willingness of China, in the wake of the nuclear test, to use more influence in Pyongyang, the Macao bank restrictions, have clearly put more pressure on North Korea. That pressure has been important to bringing the government back to the interim agreement.

This is a huge economic stick.
This is a “carrot and stick” approach. The ultimate strategy is to convince North Korea to exchange normalization and economic engagement for the abandonment of its nuclear program and inspections. Security guarantees come along with it. It is a different logic, built on pressure and creating incentives for the regime, which is very poor, to change its way.

Has President Bush given up on achieving political peace by means of regime change?
I think the view that you can’t negotiate with evil and that you have to eliminate the regime to eliminate the threat is a philosophy associated with hardliners in the administration. That view has been competing with views associated with Colin Powell for four years. The engagement view has won out.
Mr. Bush and [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice have committed themselves to the new approach. If it succeeds, it may have an impact on other countries, such as Iran.

Can North Korea be “bribed” into giving up its nuclear ambition?
Again, we do not know. History tells us that they will make their decisions [based] on the regime’s survival. They think that they need nuclear deterrence. They will not give it up. Under the right set of circumstances security guarantees, direct talks, sequencing of decisions, concessions that allow North Koreans to get as much as they can without playing their final chip, which is their nuclear program if they can get the right assurances and inducements, it is conceivable [that they will give it up].
It is worth taking the risk, but I am skeptical that we will get that far during the Bush administration. I suspect that North Koreans do not know themselves what they will do finally.

Should there be strengthened pressure to improve human rights conditions in North Korea?
Promotion of human rights is a part of U.S. foreign policy. This has had many wonderful outcomes. During the Cold War, the attention to human rights was positive, activating and supporting dissidents inside the Soviet Union, ultimately bringing about the end of the Cold War through internal pressure. North Korea is such a closed society that it is literally impossible to work with human rights groups inside North Korea even if they exist.
So, the only way in which human rights concerns are registered is by putting pressure on the government. That is not likely to create circumstances that will lead that government to relax its policies and open up its society.
Therefore, it becomes self-defeating. It is not that the principle is wrong; we should celebrate that principle. It becomes a programmatic judgement when the promotion of human rights through symbolic action [either] helps or hurts the process.


By Ser Myo-ja Staff Writer [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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