Diplomacy and causation

This Wall Street Journal editorial wants to argue that diplomacy is somehow the culprit behind the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear program. The inconvenient fact, of course, is that the reinvigorated six-party talks did result in the shutting down of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Did Pyongyang ignore other provisions of the agreement? Yes. Did it not fulfill all of the expectations brought about by the talks? Yes. This is a wily and confrontational regime we are dealing with, after all. But this seems to me a reason for more talks, not fewer.

Plus, look what happens when military strikes are involved:

Amid this Western accommodation, in September 2007 Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear facility that U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe was supplied by North Korea. Pyongyang denied any role, and the U.S. kept its diplomacy active. However, North Korea ignored its end-of-year deadline for producing its nuclear declaration. When it did finally produce one, six months later, it included an incomplete plutonium record and nothing about its uranium nuclear program. The North did publicly destroy the cooling tower of its reactor at Yongbyon for the TV cameras, but it balked at any credible verification process.

The editorial doesn’t even try to argue that any positive results in terms of relations with North Korea followed from the Israeli strike. Nor, of course, does it suggest that North Korean intransigence was a result of this bombing. Yet some positive results — destroying the Yongbyon reactor has to count for more good than to just television cameras — and some negative results ensued from both military and diplomatic pressure points.

And this is the problem of attributing causation, with crazy paranoid regimes no less (in fact only more) than with anything else. There are plenty of examples to pick and choose, then mix and match, to befit whatever ideological bent one already has. But to assume diplomacy claims an ability reduce nuclear stockpiles at a stroke misses the point. This is not an easy game, and the only thing we can pretty much be universally assured of is that that oft-hinted at option of “try[ing] something different” — presumably involving missiles — will only result in disastrous consequences.