The Pessimists



When crises break, the instant experts come out of the woodwork in opportunistic swarms. But with no less than James Clapper saying denuclearization is "not in the cards," I link to four analysts who know what they are talking about and have reached the same pessimistic conclusion. They argue we are now in a containment world, although with subtly different views of what that means.

First up, Jeff Lewis at Foreign Policy (here and here). I admit to putting words in Lewis’ mouth; he does not say flat-out that denuclearization is impossible. But the title of his article, apparently imposed by his editors, is “The Game is Over, and North Korea Has Won.” Lewis has been saying for some time that we are underestimating North Korea’s capabilities, with the clear implication that they have much more to give up than they did in 2006. I call this camp the “techno-pessimists.” Given the tremendous investment required for North Korea to get where it is, and the massive military-industrial complex built up around the program, the bargaining problem of dismantling or retooling it is now beyond what any negotiation will yield.

At Brookings, Jeffrey Bader, special assistant to President Obama at the NSC and principal advisor on Asia, walks methodically through all of the other options, knocking each down with crisp precision: from military strikes, to sanctions, to several variants of the China outsourcing model. Bader’s pessimism is by default; nothing else designed to get to a denuclearized peninsula appears to work. Asking what Kennan would do, he hits on a psychological theme that undergirds all of the pessimists: our penchant for denial. As he puts it, “we need to realize that while some situations may be unacceptable, they do not lend themselves to short-term fixes. The North Korean challenge is one of them.” Recognizing that the parallel between the Soviet Union and North Korea is imperfect, he nonetheless sees a number of commonalities in a strategy of containment: strengthened deterrence and defense; as close to a strategic embargo as we can get; close collaboration with allies; and no recognition. Bader wavers at the end, saying we should hold out for one more offer. But his heart is not really in it.

Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration, and his contribution at Reuters and in an earlier piece at Survival (from 2009 no less) offers up a more institutionalized version of containment. Yes, deterrence and defense matter. But Ramberg does not rule out confidence-building measures, such as a hotline, and crisis management measures such as employing envoys and mediators, both public and private.

Finally, David Lai and Alyssa Blair, at the U.S. Army War College, argue at Foreign Policy for what might be called “engagement pessimism.” Since you are not going to disarm them, then just openly live with it, starting with the crucial step of recognition. Essentially, they are arguing for the Pakistan-India-Israel model: rather than claiming repeatedly that North Korea’s program is “unacceptable,” just give up denial and accept North Korea as a de facto if not de jure nuclear power. Lai and Blair sneak in an upbeat note of optimism: that perhaps if you make this leap, North Korea will be open to negotiations and reduce its capacity. But they do not hold out hope; rather, they think we should simply move on.

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