President Obama came to office in 2009 promising to negotiate with America's enemies and create a world without nuclear weapons. Four years later, North Korea is threatening America with nuclear attack, Iran is closer to its own atomic arsenal, and the world is edging ever closer to a dangerous new era of nuclear proliferation. The promises and the reality are connected.
The latest talks between the West and Iran failed this weekend, with no immediate plans for another round. The negotiations by now follow a pattern in which the U.S. makes concessions that Iran rejects, followed by more concessions that Iran also rejects, and so on as Tehran plays for time.
North Korea, meanwhile, has moved medium-range missiles to its east coast in preparation for what is expected to be another launch as early as this week. This follows its third nuclear test and an explicit government authorization to strike U.S. targets with nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan are in the direct line of fire.
The U.S. responded at first with a modest show of deterrent force (B-2 bombers, Aegis cruisers), but lately it has downplayed the threat and even cancelled a U.S. missile test lest it discomfit the North's young dictator Kim Jong Eun. U.S. policy now seems to be to beg China one more time to do something about its client state. This is worth trying given that China has a new senior leadership, but the public nature of U.S. pleading (see the weekend's newspapers) also projects weakness.
This anti-proliferation failure, in turn, has friends and allies increasingly wondering if they need their own nuclear deterrent. Chung Mong-joon, a prominent member of South Korea's ruling party, has called for the U.S. to return tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula. George H.W. Bush withdrew them from South Korea in 1991 in a gesture to stop North Korea from going nuclear.