The Duck of Minerva

The Virtues of Bribery

31 May 2005

I swear that I had no idea what Bill’s next post was going to be about when I started this one, but I think they compliment one another nicely.

There has been a lot of attention lately to the Iranian nuclear program, but there’s even less hope for optimism about North Korea’s stated, and likely growing, nuclear arsenal. As of now, there don’t seem to be any good choices. The military option faces two enormous hurdles: inadequate intelligence about the location of North Korea’s nuclear components and the risk of escalation. Even if the US could be confident that a military strike would actually seriously damage North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, it would have to weigh that gain against the strong possibility of open warfare on the penninsula. Experts fully expect the US would win a second Korean War, but millions of South Koreans would likely die once North Korea started pounding Seoul.

A lot of critics belittle the 1994 Agreed Framework – which, among other steps, pledged US aid in exchange for Pyongyang’s commitment to freeze and then dismantle its graphite-moderated nuclear reactions. For them, the Agreed Framework was nothing more than a “bribe” (for similar criticisms of the Agreed Framework and other proposed deals, see here, here, and here) that “rewarded” North Korea’s “nuclear blackmail.” US officials have used similar language, stating that they won’t “reward” North Korea for breaking its agreements. Dick Cheney is also on record that the US won’t give in to North Korean nuclear “blackmail.”1

I wonder, though, if bribery is getting a bum rap. After all, it has a long and storied history as a tool of great-power politics. The Han bribed the Xiong Nu (or Hsiung-Nu) and, if Thomas Barfield is correct, that bribery not only helped maintain the Xiong Nu but also was, in the main, a good deal for the Han. The Romans bribed a great many barbarian tribes and rulers, even if the policy was not always successful. Sufficient generosity probably would have prevented the Vandals from making a mess of Rome. The Germans paid the Ottoman Empire a lot of cash to get it to enter the First World War. The US and the USSR “bribed” foreign leaders all the time during the Cold War.

So what’s wrong with bribing the North Koreans? One objection is that it won’t work. After all, the argument goes, look what happened with the Agreed Framework. But, it turns out, the question of whether or not North Korea violated the agreement is actually quite murky. It might also be the case that the North Koreans just want more aid and concessions; this could be the equivalent of an old-style cross-border raid to get more money out of the empire.

At least some opposition to bribery is normative. Giving lots of aid to a saber-rattling, agreement-breaking, starve-our-own people regime is really unseemly. Righteous nations, like the United States, simply shouldn’t reward oath breaking. But what’s the better alternative, really? And international politics almost always involves choosing between unpleasant options.

In my view, the strongest argument against bribing the North Koreans is a rough variation on the “moral hazard” problem: if the US gives into the North Koreans, it might encourage other regimes to build nukes with the aim of wresting concessions from us. James D. Miller, writing at Tech Central Station, argues in favor of bribery on strict cost-benefit cost grounds: “giving in to North Korean blackmail would encourage other nations to start producing atomics so that we would bribe them, too, to behave. The U.S. is so rich compared to rogue nations, however, that it might not be too expensive for us to bribe our way to peace.”2

But how convincing is the causal logic of this objection in the first place? As Bill discusses below, embarking on a nuclear-weapons program is both costly and risky. Not only does it require a significant commitment of resources, but building the bomb has a lot of potential negative externalities in terms of security, reputation, and so forth. I don’t find it very credible that a precedent of US aid for North Korea would have very much of an impact on the calculations of other states. Moreover, the conditions that make North Korean proliferation so difficult to deal with – proximity to Seoul, an enormous conventional military, lots of tunnels and caves – are specific enough that not many foreign leaders are likely to think they can copy results from the US-North Korean standoff.

Perhaps the North Koreans are simply the barbarians of our present age. If so, the US can learn from past superpowers, many of which discovered that paying off the barbarians was ultimately cheaper and more effective than standing on principle. Over at the new – and unsurprisingly excellent – “America Abroad” section of TPMCafe, Ivo Daalder puts in as plainly as possible: “sometimes, when you don’t negotiate, evil wins.”

On the other hand, perhaps not. For a great debate over the issue, see David Kang’s and Victor Cha’s book, Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies.

1Although this may simply mean that the US wants North Korea to make significant concessions before it gets more foreign assistance. Ironically, North Korea is one of the few places in which the Bush administration made a strong commitment to multilateralism in security affairs, a policy one of the my colleagues worries amounts to “delegating” US national interests to the Chinese. Now, as Bill points out, the administration appears to be caving. Ultimately, I expect the relevant question won’t be “to bribe, or not to bribe,” but how much and under what conditions.
2I doubt I will ever agree with a TCS editorial again, but I found this one while searching for references….

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