It sounds as if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had enough. Her new strong tone on North Korea is a welcome, albeit overdue, shift. The Obama Administration’s North Korea policy for the past 18 months has consisted of public relations ploys of pretending to get tough on the rogue state and a propensity to re-package the hard work of the Bush team and call it something new and improved. Her announcement that the Obama Administration will enforce the existing sanctions on nuclear related materials and luxury goods going in and out of North Korea is yet another example. While many members of the mainstream media have fallen for the Obama team’s marketing efforts, veteran North Korea experts and UN observers aren’t fooled. Still, Clinton’s new forceful language signaled that even she believes the current policy isn’t working and more must be done. She, seemingly alone among the Obama Administration foreign policy team, is aware that success in North Korea requires more than just talking.
What Secretary Clinton really said is that the Obama Administration will finally start enforcing the demands placed on North Korea during the Bush Administration. Although the announcement claims to be fresh and innovative, the only thing new and improved is that the Obama team is admitting that its global celebrity status isn’t enough to convince other countries to actually act on their international obligations.
Even South Korea, who has the most to lose from a provocative North Korea, isn’t buying the “new” argument from the Administration. “I don’t really think there’s anything new,” Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, told the Christian Science Monitor. And he is correct.
In 2006, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton led the UN Security Council to unanimously pass an unequivocal resolution, number 1718, stating that all UN members must inspect all cargo going in and out of North Korea to ensure that there is no transfer of any nuclear related products or luxury goods. The language is absolute and written under the strongest possible terms – that is to say it acts under Chapter 7 of the UN’s charter which allows countries to use legal force to restore international peace and security. It was also passed just 5 days after North Korea conducted a nuclear test.
In 2009, 18 days after yet another North Korea nuclear test, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and her team re-packaged resolution 1718 into their own UN resolution with the same mandates but different language in an effort to look like they were doing something new. While many in the media took the bait, analysts who took the time to look at the language of both resolutions concluded there was nothing in Rice’s resolution that wasn’t already barred in the original Bush Administration resolution. With inspections required on every ship and plane going in and out of North Korea, it’s impossible to suggest that searches are somehow new. The only thing that may be new is that the Obama team is consistently leaking the details of vessel seizures to David Sanger of The New York Times. And in return, Sanger has been all too willing to act like something is actually new with their North Korean policy.
The hard work the Bush team did in passing unanimous Security Council resolutions and the ridicule from Obama and Rice at the time now seems ironic given the poor performance the current Administration has in passing strong resolutions. Much of the blame for the weakness belongs to Rice and her habitual silence. Rice has not conducted the hard negotiations nor done the sometimes unpopular work of engaging the UN on the United States’ priority issues. When Rice does attend UN negotiations, she avoids confrontation. It took Rice 103 days to move the Security Council to issue a statement after North Korea sank a South Korean ship that killed 46 sailors. And on Iran, Rice was only able to get 12 countries to support new sanctions compared to the Bush team’s unanimous support for three separate resolutions. Secretary Clinton seems all too willing to let Rice’s failed record stand alone. Clinton has done little to help her fellow cabinet member with international negotiations and State Department insiders say that the two seldom speak or coordinate directly.
While Obama has long believed that his personal story alone would compel leaders to follow him, Clinton’s frustration with the Administration’s lack of progress on issues like North Korea and Iran is beginning to bubble up. Today’s tough talk of enforcing previous international obligations is the first sign Clinton has given that she is irritated with the weak Obama policies. But it isn’t the first time Hillary Clinton disagreed with Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Clinton called candidate Obama’s ideas on rogue nations “naïve”. Clinton also criticized Obama as someone that “wavers from seeming to believe that mediation and meetings without preconditions can solve some of the world’s most intractable problems and advocating rash unilateral military action”. Clinton went on to say, “We need a president who understands there is a time for force, a time for diplomacy and a time for both.” But in perhaps her strongest criticism of Obama, she said he would need “a foreign policy instruction manual” if elected.
Obama’s foreign policy weakness and acquiescence has made him an international celebrity, but he isn’t producing the promised results on our international priorities. The Obama team’s poor performance calls into question its overly diplomatic approach and its fixation with trying to lead the world through excessive talk. But Clinton signaled that she is frustrated with just talk and wants action. Clinton’s reference to the Bush Administration’s North Korea sanctions resolution is a sure sign she wants more than a PR strategy to deal with rogue nations. It remains to be seen if the Secretary of State has enough capital inside the Administration to start teaching the President a few things about being tough with dictators.