October 13, 2006

The fallout of North Korea's nuclear test

On Monday morning, all of us woke up in a different world.

The reverberations of the North Korean nuclear test will go far beyond what can be measured on a seismograph, and the full extent of its effects is still unimaginable. The next few months could see anything from the peaceful opening of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) to regional nuclear exchanges. It’s almost dangerous to even hazard a guess at what will happen next.

But if you look carefully, there are certain hints of what’s to come, buried in the body paragraphs of news story after news story. A picture is slowly emerging of the sad end of an era of great hope and the frightening beginning of one of great chaos.

This transition will play out across the planet, but its effects may be clearest in the halls of power in Tokyo. If a nuclear North Korea means anything, it means that the decades-long debate over the revision of Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution will return with a Mike Myers–like vengeance, and that the pacifists will almost certainly lose ground.

Article Nine is essentially a unique phenomenon: It is the renunciation of war as a tool of statecraft and the abandonment of the right to a military as such. While in reality, the Self-Defense Forces are far more than a national police organization, the national consensus is that they cannot be used for aggressive purposes. This idea has not had such vitality in any other nation.

Unfortunately, the definition of terms like “war potential” has always been nebulous in Japanese constitutional interpretation, and conservatives have long been chipping away at the substance of the article. Since the advent of the American world police regime in the mid-1990s, some have been clamoring for Japanese troops to be deployed overseas. The events of the last week will give advocates of the necessary constitutional changes a major boost. While it’s doubtful that the article will be completely excised, it seems exceedingly likely that phrases like “self-defense” will be redefined to the point of total hollowness.

Such a step would mark the failure of a glorious experiment in optimistic foreign relations. The specter of nuclear holocaust and the collapse of the Soviet Union combined to allow a millenarian vision of the end of war as we know it. This surrender would acknowledge that no nation can protect its fundamental interests without at least holding such an option in reserve. The disarmament of Article Nine would be a triumph of realism and a defeat for the idealists, the dreamers, and the last believers in the spirit of the United Nations.

The more practically minded may scoff at those who mourn at the graveside of such a naive principle. But even the greatest cynic cannot ignore the cause of its death. The unspoken leg that Article Nine stands on is the protection guaranteed by American military might. It would be irresponsible, given the state of affairs for Tokyo, not to consider revising the limitations on its armed forces, because the United States can no longer unilaterally ensure the security of Japan.

It should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that our military is stretched to the absolute limit. Between overseas duty, disaster relief, and border patrol, even the National Guard is near the red line. We simply do not have the conventional forces required to face down North Korea and still hold up our commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, at home, and across the globe. The Bush administration’s denial of violent intent is not just an attempt to prevent too-rapid escalation. At the moment, any use of force would require the assistance of allies. We can’t launch such an undertaking on our own.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, the United States has stood head and shoulders above the rest of the major powers, with the military potential to take on all comers without aide. But as many in the U of C’s own political science department have argued, the reductions in actual military power that accompanied the changes on the world stage made this a practical impossibility. Despite this, the current regime has heedlessly charged into a hornet’s nest, acting without taking international opinion into account, and for the most part without much support. Like a first-year punch-drunk on the freedom of college life, we took on far too much with far too little consideration of the consequences.

Now, our past is predictably coming back to haunt us. Monday marked an unacceptable disruption of the status quo, and the damage that would result from Muniching the North Koreans would be incalculable. Nor is Iran going to wait until the situation is completely resolved before forcing matters to a head in its own drive for nuclear technology. We are going to need the cooperation of “lesser” powers to ensure satisfactory outcomes on the Korean Peninsula, in the Middle East, and in the War on Terror.

Denuding Article Nine of meaning is symbolic of the lost chance for real change in the way the world does business. But as John Mearsheimer might say, it’s also a nod to a new system where the American policeman will no longer be able to pick up the phone when nations dial 911 and are requesting backup.

The unipolar moment is over, and no one knows what will happen next. Article Nine will be just one of the casualties.