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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Bus Is Waiting

October 11, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

As eras go, the post-cold war has been a pretty good one. The collapse of communism, the spread of free-market democracies and the general reign of stability bought and paid for by U.S. power all combined to create a world in which China and India have been able to rise peacefully, America has prospered, and Europe has become whole and free. Yes, there’s been 9/11, Bosnia, the rise of the petro-dictators and African wars — which are hardly trivial. But all in all, compared with the vast repression and nuclear standoff that characterized the cold war, the post-cold-war era has been much better for a lot of humanity.

Too bad it’s probably over.

Yes, one day historians may argue that the post-cold war started on 11/9 and ended on 10/9.

The Berlin Wall fell on 11/9 — Nov. 9, 1989, which ushered in the post-cold-war world. The apparent North Korean nuclear test went up on Oct. 9, 2006, which, may have ushered out the post-cold-war world and ushered in a much more problematic era — the post-post-cold-war world.

This post-post-cold-war era will be defined by three new features — if things continue as they are. First is a nuclear Asia, triggered by North Korea’s flaunting of its nuclear weapons. How long will Japan, Taiwan and South Korea remain nonnuclear with Kim Jong-il brandishing his bomb? Second is a nuclear Middle East. Iran is almost certain to follow North Korea’s lead, and once the Shiite Persians in Iran have the bomb, how long will it be before the Sunni Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even Syria have one too? Third is a disintegrating Iraq in the heart of the Arab world, with its destabilizing impact on oil prices and terrorism.

Together these will add up to a much more dangerous and volatile post-post-cold-war world — unless ...

Unless, what? Unless China and Russia get their act together and understand that the post-post-cold-war world is a much bigger threat to their prosperity than a post-cold-war world in which U.S. power is pre-eminent. You read me right — the post-cold-war world can be preserved only if Russia and China get over their ambivalence about U.S. power and if the Bush team gets over its ambivalence about Iran and North Korea.

How so? The U.S. is sanctioned out when it comes to Iran and North Korea. We don’t have any more unilateral sanctions with which to pressure either regime to halt its nuclear adventure. The only countries that could have an impact on North Korea and Iran are China and Russia.

If China told North Korea that unless it dismantled its nuclear program and put its facilities under U.N. inspection, Beijing would cut off its energy and food, Kim Jong-il would relent. He is not suicidal. Anything less than such an explicit Chinese threat will mean a nuclear North Korea and eventually a nuclear Asia — which will certainly not be good for China’s growth prospects.

And if China and Russia told Iran that they would join in the toughest possible U.N. economic sanctions on Tehran if it persisted in its nuclear program, the ayatollahs would also back down. Because then the Europeans would have the spine to join in sanctions and Tehran would face a united front.

To be sure, both moves would be greatly helped by a declaration from the Bush team that it had overcome its infighting and decided to pursue changes in behavior instead of changes in regimes in North Korea and Iran, and would be prepared to give explicit security guarantees to both if they verifiably ended their nuclear programs. When an administration can’t make up its mind between regime change and change of behavior, it gets neither. And that is what the Bush team has gotten.

So, thanks to North Korea’s nuclear test, we’ve come to a moment of truth. Yes, we have to make up our minds, but so, too, must Moscow and Beijing. They constantly advocate “multilateral” solutions. Well, will they sign up for the kind of biting multilateral sanctions that would work vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea and make “unilateral” U.S. military options unnecessary? If Russia and China want to see the post-cold-war world continue, they can’t be free riders anymore — opposing both U.S. unilateralism and effective multilateralism that requires them to do something hard. They’ve got to start paying a price to preserve this world.

If they do, this relatively benign post-cold-war world might continue. If they don’t, if they keep trying to be free riders on our bus, we’ll all stall — because America can’t keep this bus moving alone any longer, especially when the road gets this dangerous.

The bus stops here.

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