09 October 2006

A chink in the armour of certainty?

Today, John Bolton (US ambassador to the UN) dismissed any idea that the US is to blame for North Korea's drive to nuclear weapons capability, adding that anyone who posits this should "get a life".

In the specific, he is undoubtedly right. The particular assertion that George Bush's 2002 inclusion of Pyongyang in his "axis of evil" triggered the initiation of a nuclear weapons programme doesn't stack up chronologically. In the broader picture, though, there is more to be said.

I have an Iranian friend, of secular and reformist inclination and ardently opposed to any development of nuclear weapons by anyone at all and by his country in particular. He commented to me a year or so ago that the invasion of Iraq had sent tremors of panic through Iran's intelligentsia and ruling class, dramatically shifting attitudes to the nuclear weapons issue. The lesson seemed to be that any country on Bush's "axis" could be accused of having a class of weapons, regardless of truth or likelihood, and attacked on that basis. The only safety lay in actually having such weapons, thus making the cost of an attack several orders of magnitude higher. Before the invasion of Iraq, my friend said, only a small minority of those in power advocated developing civil nuclear power into a platform for weapons capability; in the climate of fear which has followed it (regularly stoked by US presidential and State Department utterances), the balance of opinion was much less one sided.

Another Iranian friend, not at all secular but devoutly religious, nevertheless agreed. Nuclear weapons, he said, sit badly with the tenets of Islam and their development is, besides, a poor application of money for which better uses exist in abundance. The moderate strands in Iran's shifting power struggles also believe this, and say so, but their position is weakened by constant pressure from the west. Result: opinion drifts towards nuclear capability as the only way to discourage a western assault which seems inevitable.

In that larger picture, it doesn't seem impossible that the axis of evil statement shifted North Korea's pre-existing nuclear program into a higher gear which led to this week's alleged test detonation.

There is a larger picture still. The US is many things, many of them good, but one of them is "the world's only superpower". To much of the world in general and the developing world in particular, the US as global political entity is at best an erratically unpredictable giant which may switch from expansive friendship to petulant bullying in the blink of an eye - and at worst an implacable and merciless tyrant. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, as Acton commented. Superpowers (whether the US now, the USSR until recently, the British Empire before that, or older empires Roman, Han, Benin - supply your own example) do not, by their nature, tread lightly on the earth and they cannot help being responsible for much of what is wrong. Unfortunately, superpowers also have thick skins and citizens are able to preserve myths of their empire's benevolence because they never witness the external view of it.

The fact that Bolton felt the need to deny US responsibility strikes me as interesting in its own right. Something has clearly gotten through even the behemoth's thick skin, for him to even have acknowledged the existence of an idea which needed to be denied.

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