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Having Yellow Cake and Eating It Too

March 2, 2012

Great news! North Korea and the United States have reached a deal whereby North Korea will suspend their nuclear programs in exchange for a huge food aid package from the United States. This is obviously great news for those of us who fear nuclear proliferation (or just nuclear profusion when those weap0ns fall in the hands of irrational actors).

And though I haven’t done the math on this, I w0nder if there are perverse economic incentives going on here. 240,000 tons of food is a pretty sweet deal for a country like North Korea, in that it has a terrain that might never yield that amount of food in its annual GDP if it were behaving peacefully. In essence, North Korea has learned to trade threats for goods and services. North Korea is internalizing (and consuming) the negative externality created by the danger it poses. And this deal may incentivize North Korea to continue playing chicken with the developed world, continuing to balk and drag its feet until more and more sweeteners are added to the bounty. The question of how many times we have to pay for this deal remains to be answered.

Again, nuclear weaponry tends to screw up any and all rational calculus, and any deal that is struck (if it does in fact move the world towards nuclear containment) is probably worth it. But to what extent are we incentivizing other countries (cough cough, Iran) to seek and use the same bargaining chips? I think the outcome is to recruit and co-opt countries’ new leaders during times of transition, which are always the best moments to strike at an authoritarian regime.

The lessons we are learning in North Korea should not be ignored in the months leading up to the election as the GOP and Israel beat the drum for war against Iran. But learning these lessons of history hasn’t stopped Israel from coming out against diplomatic talks with Iran, saying it’s a waste of time, with the inevitable conclusion that we must launch a war. The hawks are trading heavily on the assumption that Iran poses a binary choice: either attack and they will be denied nukes or don’t attack and they will get a nuke. As always, the truth is much more complicated, and that causation may even be reversed. In recent history, Iran has always consolidated its domestic and allies’ support from the perception that the West is united against them (hence Ahmadinejad’s ridiculous Holocaust denial; he makes the West appear determined to oppose Iranian interests). Ahmadinejad will only have a better argument to make to Iran’s ruling religious leaders if a nuclear weapon appears to be the only way to ensure some measure of permanent security. The better option would lie in promoting some sort of imbalance of power and giving power to minority-party reformers who will have no interest in nuclear armament (and gravitate towards whatever argument against the status quo garners more popular support).

And in an ironic yet poetic parallel, the GOP is using the same tactic in America. They claim that war is the only route to peace available, and that all other options are a sign of weakness that will embolden the enemy. They claim that we must curtail our own liberties in order to accommodate religious extremists. To staunch conservatives, we can only promote freedom by removing the burden of taxation on the rich and powerful who lobby for special forms of non-taxation. And now colleges are the new pariahs because bastions of knowledge and free inquiry apparently make it hard for people to advance religious arguments.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

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