Let Them Eat Carrots

Despite all the disagreement over who's to blame for the North Korean nuclear test, everyone agrees on the next step: economic sanctions. But does anyone really think that they will work? North Korea is already the most isolated country in the world. Its people live at subsistence levels, escaping mass starvation only because of aid shipments. There is virtually no industrial economy.

The United States has imposed sanctions against the country since the 1950s, but they have not stopped the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. Nor have they loosened the regime's grip on power. The new round of sanctions will be more multilateral. Still, they have the telltale feel of most sanctions, imposed mostly because military intervention is impossible, and yet one has to do something.

Sanctions by themselves have had little success in the nuclear arena. Consider the countries that have chosen to give up either their nuclear weapons or a nuclear program: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. In all these cases what worked was mainly a positive incentive, not a punishment. These countries agreed to give up their nuclear status because they got something in return. On the other hand, punishment--decades of sanctions--had no effect on India or Pakistan. So far it has had no effect on Iran or North Korea.

The most recent case of denuclearization is Libya. Many in the Bush administration see it as a prime example of the power of coercion. Vice President Cheney explained during the last election campaign that "five days after we captured Saddam Hussein, Muammar Kaddafi came forward and announced that he was going to surrender all of his nuclear materials to the United States." There's no doubt that American power, including the strike against Iraq, played a role in persuading Kaddafi to give up his quest for nuclear weapons. But why did it work with him and not North Korea or Iran? After all, they--unlike Libya--were named as charter members of the Axis of Evil. Shouldn't they have been more scared of being next to fall?

The long history of negotiations with Libya tells a more complex story. In an exhaustively researched analysis in the journal International Security, Bruce Jentleson and Christopher Whytock detail how Libya came to give up its weapons. By the late 1970s Libya was a major sponsor of terror and determined to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons--far more aggressive in its actions than North Korea today. In the 1980s Libya was involved in the seizure of the Achille Lauro, the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin and the destruction of Pan Am 103. The Reagan administration was determined to coerce, harass and destabilize Kaddafi. It bombed Kaddafi's family compound in 1986. It launched covert operations against the regime. And, of course, it sanctioned the country. These policies were initially thought to have been successful, but it is now documented--in a study by the Defense Department--that they produced a marked increase in Libyan state-sponsored terror.

George H.W. Bush's administration concluded that this strategy was actually helping Kaddafi, who used it to gain domestic support. So the United States, along with Britain, laid out conditions for Libya to resolve outstanding disputes--acknowledgment and compensation for Pan Am 103, ending support for terror groups--with no hint of regime change. This shift got the Libyans engaged and began a process that moved forward. In 1999, when negotiations with the Clinton administration were getting close, Kaddafi asked Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan to guarantee that the United States and Britain would not try "to undermine the Libyan regime." After consulting with Washington, Annan wrote a letter confirming this to Kaddafi. In mid-2001, the Bush administration continued the talks with Libya, along the same lines but placing a greater focus on Libya's weapons of mass destruction. In 2002, after conferring with Bush, Tony Blair reaffirmed in a letter to Kaddafi that a deal on WMD would result in the normalization of relations with America and Britain. Throughout the last phase of these negotiations, the Bush administration and the British enticed Libya into the accord with the prospect of normal relations with the West, the lifting of sanctions and the free flow of trade and investment.

This is a short, selected version of the story. There were other factors at play. But undeniably, direct negotiations and the carrots that Washington and London offered played a pivotal role in changing Kaddafi's mind. The Libyan example shows that you need both sticks and carrots to get results. It also shows that you cannot get a government to make a big policy reversal if you aren't talking directly to it and if it believes that you are simultaneously attempting to overthrow that regime. The Bush administration has never resolved this fundamental contradiction--between policy change and regime change. And until it does, we will never know what an intelligent sanctions policy may produce with North Korea.