Diplomatic Diary: Same Old, Same Old

President George W. Bush recently quipped that Saddam's game with the weapons inspectors looked like a bad old movie. But Bush's own foreign policy has often taken on that same re-run quality. Call it America sticking to its guns. Or call America running into an international brick wall. Either way, the results look like Groundhog Day diplomacy.

Again and again, the U.S. has asked its allies, friends and its enemies for the same things. Again and again, those allies, friends and enemies have said the same things in response. Few minds are likely to change at this late stage.

In the case of Iraq, the United States is more than ready to use military force. That may well prove the most effective way to change international opinion about the war in Iraq--provided the war is swift and smooth.

But with the world's other weapons crisis, in North Korea, winning international support is not some obstruction to U.S. policy--it is the policy itself. President Bush has repeatedly insisted that there will be a diplomatic solution to the communist state's nuclear brinkmanship.

So what can we tell from a year of diplomacy in East Asia? This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell hop scotched across Japan, China and South Korea. It was a repeat of Bush's tour of the region almost exactly a year ago, soon after he conferred evil axis status on North Korea.

By far the most important stop on both trips was Beijing. At first glance, China has undergone historic change with the appointment of Hu Jintao as China's communist party leader. But in reality, the Bush administration has made little progress on either of the two main issues at the top of the U.S. agenda with China right now: its influence with North Korea, and its place in the Security Council debate on Iraq.

Neither Bush nor Powell could get Beijing to exert more pressure on North Korea--at least in public. Powell ought to have stood a better chance than Bush. After all, North Korea has kicked out its U.N. nuclear inspectors and re-opened its frozen nuclear site at Yongbyon. This time around, it isn't just Washington throwing rhetorical fire at the hard-line Stalinist state. The whole world can see just how badly the North can behave.

Yet China still refuses to engage Pyongyang in the tough way the United States has been demanding for the last year. After his talks in Beijing, Powell could only hint at some vague "ideas" the administration would like to see China adopt "in the days and weeks ahead".

Even on the most basic step of how to negotiate with the North, there has been no meeting of minds. The administration insists it wants to start talks with the North in a multilateral setting. But China insists just as strongly that the talks need to begin directly between the United States and North Korea.

China is proving equally as stubborn on Iraq. Powell has met with Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan every week for the last month or so. But China, which holds a veto inside the Security Council, remains firmly alongside France, Germany and Russia in opposing any war. Powell conceded that he didn't even ask the Chinese minister whether he could vote for (or at least abstain from) the new resolution.

State Department officials insist they were not expecting to come away from Powell's trip with any breakthrough. And there is ample reason to lay the blame for the deadlock at China's door. Yet these are far too pressing issues to suffer the Groundhog Day routine for so long.

In South Korea too, you might have expected dramatic change with the election of a new president, the relatively youthful Roh Moo Hyun. But President Roh, who was inaugurated this week, shows every determination to pick up where his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, left off. President Roh wants more dialogue with the North. He may not call it the "sunshine policy"--he prefers the less inspiring "peace and prosperity policy"-- but it is clearly more of the same. Even his new national security adviser, Ra Jong Yil, is a holdover from the last government.

That was exactly why the White House was hoping that Roh would lose the election to his conservative, hawkish opponent from the Grand National Party. And far from tilting towards Washington, the new president is flirting with anti-American feeling by demanding "a more reciprocal and equitable relationship" with the United States. Even Powell seemed perplexed by that position. "Well, we believe it's a very equal relationship now," he said before leaving Seoul.

Even the one new U.S. initiative in South Korea was a case of dusting down an old policy. Powell announced that food aid to the starving North would resume with an initial delivery of 40,000 tons. For two years the Bush administration has complained that the North is refusing to allow proper monitoring of that food aid, much of which ends up feeding the North's million-man army. Last June and August the United States told the North to open up to food monitors. The North has simply refused to reply.

So with no new ideas on the table, and no signs of anyone shifting positions, it looks like we'll be watching a re-run of the 1990s. That means direct talks between the communists and the Bushies, more aid for the North and more promises to end its nuclear programs.

One thing has changed: Washington has taken a tougher rhetorical line against the North, insisting that it won't be blackmailed into a deal. But then, so has the North, which keeps threatening to send Seoul into a sea of fire. Both positions are public posturing before the real work of negotiations begins. If we're destined to repeat the past, let's at least not waste any time in doing so.

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