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Obama Administration Faces Instability in Key Nuclear Nations

May 27, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Nuclear tests in North Korea, violence in Pakistan and a diplomatic stalemate with Iran has complicated nuclear diplomacy for the U.S. Former Carter official Zbigniew Brzezinski and Philip Zelikow, foreign adviser under President Bush, consider the new world.
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MARGARET WARNER: To add to the administration’s nuclear proliferation pressures this week came new defiant words from Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. Once again, he warned the U.S. and the West not to interfere with Tehran’s nuclear development program.

How can the American president deal with the challenges and dangers of this new nuclear world?

For that, we turn to Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser during the Carter administration, now counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Philip Zelikow, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and now a professor of history at the University of Virginia.

And welcome to you both. Professor Brzezinski, has any American president ever faced nuclear proliferation challenges on this many fronts at once?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: No, I have to say that that hasn’t happened before. And it’s quite ominous, and it emphasizes the importance of the United States doing what it can to work with other states in responding to this.

It may come to the point that the United States has to respond alone — for example, if South Korea and Japan were in danger, because we are committed as an ally to these two countries.

But as a general proposition, the more we can work with other states in responding, the better it will be, the more likely we can handle it, and, of course, the less likely that we’ll be engaged in a prolonged and solitary conflict.

Juggling more serious threats

Philip Zelikow
University of Virginia
We're engaged in a 60-year struggle to contain the diffusion of nuclear weapons. We're now seeing another round in a long, long struggle, but it's a really important round, because we're really at a crossroads that we haven't been at before.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that this is unprecedented to have this many pots boiling at once?

PHILIP ZELIKOW, University of Virginia: Well, we could argue about different periods in which there were a number of different nations about to go nuclear. In fact, nearly 20 years ago, you had North Korea and Pakistan getting ready to go nuclear, and Iraq also trying to develop nuclear weapons. Now we've got the Iranian dimension.

Here's the big picture, though, to keep in mind. We're engaged in a 60-year struggle to contain the diffusion of nuclear weapons. We're now seeing another round in a long, long struggle, but it's a really important round, because we're really at a crossroads that we haven't been at before.

On the one hand, you have the path that President Obama laid out in his speech in Prague in which he now says the United States wants to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. He wants these weapons to go away.

On the other hand, you have a series of developments that to a lot of the world is saying, not only are these weapons not going away, there are going to be a lot more of them. We're going to democratize nuclear weapons.

So I think, actually, we're going to go in one of these two directions. We're either going to convincing start reducing them with global initiatives led by the United States and then using that global initiative to rally others and defeat the short-term problem, which is to head off dangers from countries like North Korea and Iran and show that, no, that's not going to be the future path.

Because if we get through this crisis and the world concludes it's going to be a world of more nuclear weapons, all hopes of eliminating them will finish.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, that there is a danger here of a kind of breakout or bust-out, where you suddenly -- the U.S. will have a lot more nuclear-armed states and many who may not be or some who may not be deterred by the old deterrence kind of strategy?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think that, in the near future, there are not that many more states that are likely to go nuclear quickly. But we do have a very specific and urgent problem in our hands, which we really can't address on the basis of sort of large global schemes, whatever they are. These are practical and immediate problems.

We have to cool off the situation in the Far East. And the best way to do it is to get China, and Russia, and Japan to work as close as they can with us.

And we have to be able to, in some fashion, help the Pakistani government to maintain itself, lest its nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the Taliban.

And then, beyond that, of course, we have to explore seriously with our friends whether the Iranians are prepared to negotiate seriously. These are immediate tasks.

Forming a 'collective' response

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former National Security Adviser
The more immediate problem is to make certain that the other nations concerned, particularly China, Russia, Japan, are with us in a collective response. If they are, then we could even conceivably impose additional sanctions...

MARGARET WARNER: So if we take the immediate task of the freshest development first, North Korea -- I mean, on the one hand, Hillary Clinton had very tough words today for North Korea, saying there would be consequences at the U.N. On the other hand, she said there was still the hope or expectation that they could be brought back to the six-party talks.

Now, that's kind of the -- we've also said those sorts of things. I mean, is there anything new here? Or does there need to be something new here?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: I think there does need to be something new. It's really hard to question that the United States has gone the extra mile on diplomacy with North Korea, some might argue too far.

But the United States has given that a good-faith try. And most importantly, our allies in the region all agree that we gave this a good-faith try.

Well, diplomacy is not working. Now it's time to concentrate on how we defend ourselves, because so they're embarked on a path in which they have different goals than we do. And we've set up various tests which they have now unequivocally failed. And so now we have to concentrate on containing and limiting this danger.

I would, by the way, add that a new U.N. Security Council resolution might not help you. We already have a terrific U.N. Security Council resolution on the books. It's been broken. We should now take actions responding to the violation of that norm set by the international community.

A new resolution that seems to limit our freedom of action will only reinforce the image of impotence. It won't make us look more powerful.

MARGARET WARNER: Give me one quick example of a new action, then I want to get back to...

PHILIP ZELIKOW: A new action could be, for instance, that we would cut off the channels of proliferating nuclear material that may have supplied nuclear material from North Korea to Libya and to Syria, commercial and financial conduits. We can act against those.

MARGARET WARNER: What would do you on North Korea?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I think we've been doing, actually, a lot of that, and we should continue doing that.

The more immediate problem is to make certain that the other nations concerned, particularly China, Russia, Japan, are with us in a collective response. If they are, then we could even conceivably impose additional sanctions that are much more painful and visible, namely, interference with shipments to North Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: And if they aren't?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: And if they aren't, then I am afraid the choice for us is a very difficult one. We can try to do it alone, but with the risk that this could lead to confrontation in which we would then be alone.

Or we can simply stand back, give assurances again to South Korea and to Japan that we'll defend them in any case, if necessarily, alone, but that collective response, collective action of some sort painful for North Korea is the responsibility of the countries that have been negotiating with North Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: And, meanwhile, North Korea is also testing off missiles trying to bring Japan and South Korea even more into harm's way here. What do we do about that?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Right. I don't think the United States and its allies can tolerate the continued and successful development by North Korea of long-range ballistic missile capabilities that it can marry to nuclear payloads.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do we do?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: They will need a testing program in order to develop those kinds of missile capabilities. And at some point, the United States and its allies will need to be willing to intervene to keep that testing program from culminating.

And, by the way, again, here we're operating with the full backing of the United Nations, which told North Korea unanimously that it should not continue its ballistic missile development. Now we've got to see if there's steel behind those resolutions.

A lack of allies

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former National Security Adviser
So we have to play each game by analyzing the circumstances and fashioning an appropriate response, but within reason, and not end up being alone having to deal with the problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Former Defense Secretary William Perry at one point suggested that we should get to the point that North Korea is testing missiles, we should -- the United States should take them out. Would you go that far?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, the missile, for example, it was flying over Japan, I think we'd have very good reason, if necessary, and if asked by the Japanese. Very important they have to ask us. We could intercept it.

But the real problem is that we don't have allies. Phil, you spoke of allies doing things jointly with us. The problem is that China and Russia are not really our allies. They're partners in a common venture, but they have somewhat different readings of the nature of the problem.

MARGARET WARNER: And that's true in Iran, as well, is it not?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, of course. That's the problem everywhere. And, therefore, how we coalesce with them, how we fashion a common policy is really very difficult.

In the case, for example, of North Korea, there could be a temptation, for example, for the Russians to let us become involved very heavily. This would certainly bog us down further.

In the case of Iran, I think the Chinese may have a real interest in being helpful, because they know that, if there is a conflict in the Strait of Hormuz, their economy will be adversely affected even more than ours.

So we have to play each game by analyzing the circumstances and fashioning an appropriate response, but within reason, and not end up being alone having to deal with the problem.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Margaret, the good news here is that we actually have friends in both of these regions. We've got good friends, Japan and South Korea, in East Asia.

In the Middle East, a lot of the countries in the region are troubled by this, not just the Israelis, but almost all of Iran's Arab neighbors, as well. So you've got friends who are willing to support us and work with us. They want to see that we've got the leadership to see it through.

But working with them, we can develop a coalition approach that shows that we're willing to be firm and stand up to these dangers and then couple that in the case of Iran with new creative diplomacy.

But I think, in the case of North Korea, the diplomacy has been tried, everyone has seen that it's been tried, and now we really have to concentrate on defensive measures.

Dealing with North Korea, Iran

Philip Zelikow
University of Virginia
China doesn't want to see either of these problems go to a violent crisis. They may not have their own incentive in crafting a solution, but they definitely have an incentive in avoiding a confrontation that could have spillover effects for them...

MARGARET WARNER: Going back to something that Phil Zelikow raised early on, which is the emphasis, perhaps, on going for a nuclear-free world.

President Obama has made arms control a new centerpiece of the U.S.-Russia relationship. And in Prague, he did give this speech calling for ultimately getting to a nuclear-free world.

Do you think that kind of grand vision has any effect on the kind of governments we're talking about here or militants in Pakistan who certainly aspire to take control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, quite frankly, the answer, in my judgment, is no, but that's not a sufficient answer. I think the reason for doing it in part is to justify a concerted effort to inhibit proliferation, and it's more difficult to do that if at the same time one is seeking more weapons or seeking the right to retain weapons forever.

So I see some expedient justification for the position that he has taken. And in the long run, of course, from a human point of view, from an historical point of view, it is desirable.

But I would like here to come back to the issue of North Korea and Iran, if I may. I think there is an important difference between them which we shouldn't lose sight of.

The North Koreans are saying to us, "We want nuclear weapons. We are seeking nuclear weapons. We have nuclear weapons," and sort of in your face.

The Iranians are saying something very different, which potentially could be exploited, namely, "We don't want nuclear weapons. We're not seeking nuclear weapons. Our religion prohibits us from having nuclear weapons."

That enables us, at least in the case of the Iranians, to say to the Iranians, "Well, we have some doubts whether this is true. We have some concerns about your veracity. Let's see if we can establish some understanding, some rules of the game. Would you give us genuine assurance that what you are saying is real."

I think that creates an opening for negotiations of the kind that is no longer feasible with the Koreans, the North Koreans. And I am afraid the North Koreans may be in a state of political dementia, paranoia that could precipitate some upheaval, some eruption that would be very dangerous.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, brief final thought?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Briefly, China doesn't want to see either of these problems go to a violent crisis. They may not have their own incentive in crafting a solution, but they definitely have an incentive in avoiding a confrontation that could have spillover effects for them, so they might be helpful.

MARGARET WARNER: All Right, Phil Zelikow, Zbigniew Brzezinski, thank you both.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Thank you.