In 2010, it will be time to start talking to the scary people: the rogue states that we’d like to ignore but can’t for fear of the mess they’d make.
The decade which we are leaving behind will always be remembered for the Americans’ attempt to upset the Applecart of Evil – they failed, managing only to dislodge the least bad apple in the disreputable crop. Pretty much everyone except Saddam, we now know, either had nuclear weapons or was trying to get some.
As it is, the other bogeymen are still out there, tunnelling beneath civilisation’s walls. The North Koreans, who do have nukes, were (and maybe still are) helping the Syrians acquire weapons of mass destruction of their own; some fear the North Koreans are now also talking to the Burmese junta about nuclear technology transfer. The Iranians don’t have nuclear weapons yet but they will do soon (their plans for a nuclear weapons trigger were exposed two weeks ago); and then there’s the Taliban, covetously eyeing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from their mountain hidey-holes.
So having defanged the wrong snake, we are now left with little choice but to try charming the rest (the West no longer has the political, or financial, capital to do anything different). Barack Obama is a gifted orator, but when he asked the Iranians to unclench their fist upon taking office they just stuck their fingers in their ears.
Unfortunately, every week that goes by it becomes more urgent that he finds a way to get the Iranians to listen. If you were to ask someone in Tel Aviv how they felt about the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear bomb – something which could feasibly happen by the end of 2010 – they would probably tell you that there is no way they will ever let that happen. The Israeli Air Force destroyed Syria’s nuclear plant in 2007, and they will almost certainly bomb Iran’s in 2010 unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough. If the Israelis push the button, we can close the file on peace in the Middle East – and probably in Afghanistan, which borders Iran, as well.
Thankfully, the world’s other pariahs seem more willing to communicate. The North Korean regime and its leader, Kim Jong-il, continue to stagger on through the ashes of their economy, defying predictions of collapse year after year. A trickle of international aid and the country’s border with China – which is a black-market back door into their neighbour’s booming economy – keeps the Kim regime on permanent life support. But the patient is critical: this month’s revaluation of the won inspired a rare show of outrage from many North Koreans, whose savings were spontaneously wiped out by the regime’s financial tinkering; the Leader’s ill health is also making the country’s military control freaks nervous about the future; and the threat of famine, which has killed hundreds of thousands since the 1990s, remains severe. Obama’s envoy was in Pyongyang earlier this month, and the North Koreans appeared keen to restart meaningful talks in the hope of finally breaking out of their long international limbo. Their nuclear weapons are their bargaining chip, and they will expect the US to stake something substantial in return.
The Obama administration has also started making overtures to the Burmese, ending a long policy of stonewalling which did nothing to loosen the junta’s grip on power. Burma is due to hold elections in 2010, and no amount of pressure that Washington can exert is going to make the process anything more than the military victory parade that everyone expects. But if ignoring the junta didn’t work – not least because China, India and Thailand never joined the chorus of disapproval – then engagement might just soften the hard Burmese line.
However you look at it, the West’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have left acting tough with little gloss; from now on talking tough will have to do.