Small Nations' Last Defense

William M. LeoGrande is dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University. Kenneth E. Sharpe is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of political science at Swarthmore College.

The world may be about to get even more dangerous.

President Bush believes that a preemptive military strike against Iraq will force other states to think twice before acquiring chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. It's more likely to have the opposite effect. Small powers will have a greater incentive to acquire weapons of mass destruction as their only deterrent against the whims of the world's only superpower.

Historically, one refuge for small powers has been international law. If great powers accepted an international legal framework, they might use military force less arbitrarily. For a time in the post-Cold War world, the United Nations offered hope of such an international order based on law, multilaterally enforced.

Small states have also tried to protect themselves by doing nothing to threaten great powers. Success depends on the goodwill and restraint of great powers, or at least the predictability of their actions. Finland's relationship with the former Soviet Union is a classic example.

The Bush administration's doctrine of military preemption has undercut these security strategies. Its willingness to wage war unilaterally means that small countries can no longer look to the international community to brake U.S. decisions to use force against them. If a small state isn't a U.S. ally, it's all the more likely to come under the gun of Washington. What's more, it doesn't even have to present a clear and present danger to U.S. security to warrant an attack. It need only have the potential to develop such a threat sometime in the future.

Bush's doctrine of preemption bears an uncanny resemblance to "Minority Report," the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie in which the police arrest people for "pre-crimes" -- crimes they will commit in the future, rather than those actually carried out. As the movie points out, such prognostications can be wrong.

If this seems a stretch when applied to Bush's foreign policy, consider the case of Cuba. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, Cuban American officials inside the administration argued that Cuba's hostility to the United States, combined with the weapons-producing potential of its biotechnology industry, made it a serious terrorist threat. Never mind that there was no credible evidence that Cuba has biological weapons or is developing them. The mere fact that it has dual-use technology was danger enough.

An expansive definition of what counts as a threat to the United States is not the only reason for small countries to worry. Washington's new fascination with exporting democracy means that any nondemocratic regime could be at risk of attack. Since the end of the Cold War, many conservative policy analysts have contended that authoritarian regimes, by their very nature, constitute a threat to international security because they are more prone to commit acts of aggression. Since Sept. 11, the administration has blamed these regimes for the rise of international terrorism, either because they sponsor it (Afghanistan under the Taliban) or because they allow dissidents no peaceful way to express their grievances (Egypt and Saudi Arabia).

How can small states protect themselves in a world where diplomacy is an ineffective constraint on American might and U.S. conventional firepower is second to none?

Consider the case of North Korea.

Critics have blasted the administration's ostensible inconsistency in dealing with the threats posed by Iraq and North Korea. On the face of it, North Korea poses the greater threat, but Iraq is the target of choice. Yet, different policies toward these two countries make good sense for the simple reason that they have very different capabilities. North Korea has the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, notably nuclear bombs, and has conventional forces sufficient to devastate South Korea. Iraq has nothing comparable. The Bush administration is effectively deterred from attacking North Korea, but not Iraq.

The lesson to small countries is plain: If you fear U.S. attack, develop weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent. Or, as former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, "Go nuclear as rapidly as possible and as secretly as possible, act crazy so as to deter us."

The Korean crisis may well be a product of this dynamic. When Bush entered office, he broke off talks with North Korea, denounced its leader, Kim Jong Il, as a "pygmy" whom he loathed and included the country in his "axis of evil." Under such circumstances, it's understandable that the isolated and paranoid North Koreans might worry that they are the next target of U.S. military intervention. As preparations to attack Iraq have gone forward, the North Koreans have accelerated their nuclear program.

Lest anyone think the Korean case is exceptional, recall that the most serious crisis of the Cold War developed in similar circumstances.

Forty years ago, Fidel Castro feared that the United States was planning a second Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow him. Hoping to deter such an attack, he accepted Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. Some Bush administration officials have compared President John F. Kennedy's response to that crisis to Bush's preemptive policy toward Iraq. In fact, Kennedy ruled out a preemptive strike and resolved the crisis diplomatically by agreeing not to attack Cuba, thereby providing a formal guarantee to take the place of the missile deterrent. It is no coincidence that North Korea is demanding a formal U.S. declaration of nonaggression in exchange for ending its nuclear program.

When small countries feel threatened and have few options, they will be more prone to seek drastic means of safeguarding their security like weapons of mass destruction, even though that may make them less secure in the long run.

If the U.S. continues to claim the right to launch a preemptive militarily strike against a country, regardless of international law and opinion, it creates a world described by philosopher Thomas Hobbes as the war of all against all, where "clubs are trumps." Every small country then has an interest in getting itself a very big club.

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