The Trump administration’s stubborn insistence on the goal of North Korean denuclearization ignores reality:
The Trump administration won’t admit it, but North Korea is now a nuclear weapons power, analysts say. Why would Kim Jong Un’s cash-strapped regime spend so much time and money on building these weapons only to give them up? And even if they were prepared to bargain them away eventually, why would they do so now, when Trump and his top aides are threatening military action?
“We’ve seen no indication in recent years that they are interested in denuclearization,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale Law School who was an Asia adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “So it’s difficult to rationalize how we are still so fixated on it.”
Since North Korea won’t be denuclearized, it doesn’t make sense to keep this as the goal of U.S. policy. The U.S. can’t achieve the goal, and by continuing to pursue it there is a serious risk of blundering into or provoking an avoidable war. If that is the case, why is our government so determined to pursue the impossible?
Our political culture has created a number of perverse incentives and bad habits that lock Washington into failed policies and perpetuate them long after they should have been abandoned. We have seen this many times over the years with sanctions and embargoes that don’t work but never end, we have seen it with desultory wars that no president is willing to stop waging, and now we see it with the failed effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Our political culture tends to reward those that spin failure and usually punishes those that expose policy failures for what they are. Whenever someone acknowledges that a policy has failed, he is typically accused of being a “defeatist,” charged with having sympathy with our adversaries, and faulted for not having enough “resolve.” There are also constituencies that have a vested interest in keeping failed policies going indefinitely, and the longer the failed policy has been in place the more influence the people that support it tend to have. Even if the policy is broadly unpopular, it can keep going for a very long time so long as a vocal and intense group of supporters fights to preserve it.
Our politicians’ inordinate obsession with “strength” and “leadership” makes it extremely difficult to admit that a policy pursued by multiple administrations has failed, because it shows that there are definite limits to American power that most of our political leaders and policymakers don’t want to acknowledge. This is particularly the case when the U.S. has attempted to compel a “rogue” regime to fall in line and been unable to force it to accept our government’s demands. No one wants to be seen as the one who accepted what our government previously declared to be “unacceptable,” because no one wants to be opened up to the seemingly inevitable charge of “appeasement” that partisan and ideological critics will make.
Failed punitive policies are often the hardest to dismantle for fear of appearing “soft” on the targeted regime. Instead of questioning whether punitive measures make sense and have the desired effect, it is much easier for our politicians and policymakers to pile on more sanctions and demands. Partisan critics of a president are more likely to blame him for failing to “stop” a foreign government from doing undesirable things than they are to fault him for pursuing an unrealistic goal. To make matters worse, the mind-numbing effects of foreign policy consensus on constructive debate and criticism are most powerful on the issues where debate and criticism are most desperately needed.
The best thing that critics of our failed North Korea policy can do is to keep emphasizing the impossibility of denuclearization and the extremely high costs of continuing down our current path. Instead of faulting the administration for “failing” to stop Kim from his latest provocations, Trump’s critics would do well to chide him for taking the U.S. down a dead-end road.