Recent events surrounding North Korea and Iran and past U.S. pressure on autocratic rulers indicate that trying to isolate such despots is exactly what they want. So why does the U.S. government continue to blunder into these failed policies?
The answer is that human nature takes over. If a brutal, authoritarian ruler, such as Kim Jong-un of North Korea, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, or Fidel Castro in Cuba does something the United States doesn’t like, the U.S. government attempts to lead worldwide economic, cultural, and political sanctions against it to isolate it from the international community of nations. In other words, the premise is that unacceptable behavior requires punishment.
Yet after decades of such isolation being an abysmal failure, especially in the three cases mentioned, one would think some re-evaluation of the policy would be in order. In the case of Cuba, some vague rumbling about reassessment has occurred but still has been blocked by the stubborn politics of south Florida, a very important state in presidential elections. As the generations pass, the hatred of Castro in the Miami area has lessened but is still strong enough to block policy change.
In the cases of Iran and North Korea, the ethnic domestic lobbies blocking a change in policy are not as strong, but searing historical events, as well as exaggerated rhetoric on the threats posed to the United States, seem to be interfering with change. Americans continue to focus on the Iranians’ holding of U.S. diplomatic hostages in the late 1970s and today’s accusations that the Islamist Iranian regime seeks a nuclear weapon, rather than remembering that the regime in that country so hates and fears America because the United States overthrew a democratically-elected and popular prime minister to reinstate the repressive Shah in 1953.
With North Korea, many American veterans of the Korean War are still around, and the North Koreans probably have crude nuclear weapons and might even be able to use medium-range missiles to deliver them against U.S. allies – South Korea and Japan.
Yet none of these three countries currently provide much of a threat to the United States. After the Cold War ended and Cuba’s main benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed, Cuba ceased to be any threat to the U.S. at all. With Iran, even if the country gets a nuclear device, the threat will be mainly to U.S. ally Israel. If the United States attenuated its support for the much wealthier Israel, Iran would be much less threatened by the threat of U.S. attack and wouldn’t, in turn, be much of a threat to the United States. Similarly, if the United States ended the unnecessary nuclear and defense umbrella it extends over the relatively wealthy South Korea (as compared with the utterly destitute North Korea), North Korea, like Iran, would be much less of threat to the U.S., even if it could develop the reliable long-range missiles to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States. If either nation made a credible threat to strike the United States with the few nuclear weapons it could muster (the recent blustering by North Korea is empty for the stated reason), the U.S. could deter such an attack with the most potent nuclear arsenal on the planet.
Of course, the threats these countries pose to America and its citizens are far less than they pose to the U.S. government’s informal worldwide empire. As a demonstration of this fact, the main objection to the U.S. abrogating its alliance with South Korea is that North Korean nuclear weapons would prompt South Korea and Japan to arm with nuclear weapons. Although nuclear proliferation is not necessarily a good thing (although at least some political scientists think it’s a stabilizing force, because they argue that it reduces the chance of conventional war among countries), many worse countries could get nuclear weapons—for example, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, as a reaction to Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Yet in both the former and latter cases, these countries getting nuclear weapons is better than holding U.S. cities at risk to nuclear devastation to protect allies from conventional and nuclear attacks. The first obligation of the U.S. government is to protect U.S. citizens and territory, not to hold them at risk of annihilation to protect the informal U.S. Empire.
The United States must realize that Iran and North Korea will be nuclear weapons states if they want to be and that the U.S. policy of isolation only makes them more paranoid and desperate. In the case of Iran, U.S. pressure simply makes the despotic Khamenei accelerate any effort to get nuclear weapons to deter the U.S. or Israel from attacking and step up his efforts to aid anti-Israeli groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and the autocratic regime in Syria. In the case of North Korea, isolation increases the Kim regime’s economic desperation, increasing its motivation to sell nuclear and missile technology to disreputable foreign governments and terrorist groups.
In both of the cases and also in the case of Castro in Cuba, these despotic regimes would have been overthrown many years ago without the U.S. bogeyman to blame all of the economic and social problems caused by their own misrule. In other words, these fragile despotic regimes desperately need U.S. isolation to survive.
Isolation rarely gets rid of such authoritarians, whereas new ideas and technology brought in by trade, investment, and interaction with the world just might eventually do so.
Dennis Rodman’s recent visit to North Korea should have started a debate about whether U.S. isolation policies against dictators really work. Instead, George Stephanopoulos shoved a human rights report on North Korea in his face (as if Stephanopoulos himself would have turned down an exclusive interview with Kim Jong-un). It is interesting that President Richard Nixon has been lauded for meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong in the early 1970s, even though Mao probably killed more people than either Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, and a whole lot more than Kim Jong-un has.
In 1967, during the disastrous U.S. war in faraway Vietnam, another athlete, Muhammad Ali, famously said that he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong. Perhaps the American people, for their own safety, ought to ask whether they really have any quarrel with despotic regimes that their own government is trying to isolate.