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April 26, 2013

Country See, Country Do - Nonproliferation Edition
Posted by David Shorr

77-Uranium dismantleMany of our debates about America's role in the world are merely different ways of asking how goody-goody we should be when faced with others' unruliness? This question is at the heart of a Jim Traub post a couple weeks ago on "Limits of Leading by Example." The piece asks whether President Obama's climb toward the nonproliferation moral high ground has gotten him anywhere. Do good deeds such as negotiating New START, narrowing doctrine for n-weapons in the Nuclear Posture Review -- and the yet-to-be-announced, though rumored, further reductions in the US arsenal -- help the United States gain others' cooperation? 

Traub offers interesting thoughts about the special challenges posed by a troglodyte regime like North Korea. He also, for the most part, avoids the familiar right wing canard about the naivety of expecting Iran or North Korea to be inspired or swayed by American rectitude. Instead Traub correctly highlights Russia, China and other key swing states as the proximate targets of the policy. Yet he still manages to oversimplify in his own way:

But the coin of rule-abidingness has not bought as much cooperation, from as many actors, as the president had hoped. As with "engagement" policy generally, Obama has found that better U.S. behavior brings applause from predictable corners (i.e., Europe) without necessarily encouraging refractory actors -- the ones Washington really worries about -- to change their ways.

This has been one of the elemental lessons of the last four years.Obama no longer expects to persuade his adversaries, whether in North Korea or Iran (or the U.S. Congress). Indeed, his policy toward Iran has increasingly come to resemble that of George W. Bush, with punishing sanctions designed to force Tehran to relinquish its program of uranium enrichment. 

There are a number of problems with Traub's argument. First, a policy course can be better than the alternatives even if it hasn't yet succeeded in its ultimate aim. To be clear, the objective has always been to corral Iran's nuclear program into being verifiably civilian, and the fact that this situation continues to fester is a big problem. But to point out that a policy has fallen short of its goal is not an argument for a different policy -- which presumably must be justified on the grounds that it would do better. If we're going to debate the wisdom of being the nonproliferation "good guys," we should focus on whether this posture has helped keep us on a better track toward our objective than we otherwise would be, whether it's been productive or counterproductive.

To be fair, Traub does mention other reasons that justify the Obama administration's move to get America's own nonproliferation house in order and some positive results he sees it attaining. Still, I think Jim has been too dismissive of the impact on other players and the international politics of nonrpoliferation. He takes the tack of saying China and Russia are too driven by national interests to be impressed with American uprightness. I see the dynamic differently; for me this is a contest over the weight of international sentiment.

It boils down to whether the world community is largely unified in putting the onus squarely on Iran, or whether Tehran manages to deflect that pressure. The increased difficulty, since Obama came to office, that Iran has had in trying divide and conquer the international community is the fruit of his stake-the-moral-high-ground approach. The point of setting a good example is to make it harder to make the US the topic of conversation rather than Iran. Contrary to what skeptics say, neither China, Russia, nor any other key player is impervious to moral authority. The tightened sanctions simply wouldn't be in place without the Obama administration's push to position itself as the reasonable one.

And the same goes for "engagement policy more generally." The more I've thought about it, the more I think engagement was a misnomer when it comes to conveying the essence of Obama foreign policy. This tag encouraged expectations, inadvertently I'd argue, that reasonableness and good faith would be a short and sure path to diplomatic solutions. It also set the administration up for the perception of a major shift in course, as portrayed by Traub and many others. Yet I see the Obama foreign policy approach as remaining basically on the same course, the one on which it originally embarked. The real point about reasonableness is that it offers the only chance of diplomatic resolution -- with the United States being accommodating enough to seek compromise, but isolating renegade regimes when they spurn the opening. We needed to get away from bluff-and-bluster foreign policy premised on getting others to capitulate by showing our resolve. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that President Obama is trying to bring back the idea of tough diplomacy that actually involves diplomacy. Oh, and if you want to know more about the idea of the US exerting influence through global civic-mindedness, then read about The Responsibility Doctrine

Image: National Nuclear Security Administration

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