By coincidence two clashes over nuclear issues are hitting the headlines together. North Korea and Iran have both had sanctions imposed by foreign governments, and when they refuse to "behave properly" they are submitted to "isolation" and put in the corner until they are ready to say sorry and change their conduct. If not, corporal punishment will be administered, since they have been given fair warning by the enforcers that "all options are on the table".
It's a bizarre way to run international relations, one we continue to follow at our peril. For one thing, it is riddled with hypocrisy, and not just because states that have hundreds of nuclear weapons are bullying states that have few or none. The hypocrisy is worse than that. If it is offensive for North Korea to talk of launching a nuclear strike at the United States (a threat that is empty because the country has no system to deliver the few nuclear weapons that it has), how is it less offensive for the US to warn Iran that it will be bombed if it fails to stop its nuclear research?
Both states would be resorting to force when dialogue is a long way from being exhausted. They would also be acting against international law. That is patently clear if North Korea ever managed to launch a nuclear strike against South Korea or the US, but the same is true of an altogether more feasible attack on Iran. There is no conceivable scenario under which the United Nations Security Council would authorise the United States, let alone Israel, to take military action, even if Iran were to tear up its long-standing statement that nuclear bombs are un-Islamic and produce one. So why does Washington go on with its illegal threats?
The underlying cause of most international tension is the unwillingness of powerful states to recognise that we live in a multipolar world. The idea of hegemony, often sanitised as "leadership", is unacceptable. In a post-colonial era there are multiple centres of authority, international influence and soft power, and we should rejoice when new or old states, individually or collectively, have the courage and ability to challenge another state's ambition to be a superpower. States will always make common cause or "coalitions of the willing" on specific issues, but interests fluctuate and priorities change – and we should junk the cold war-style system of military alliances and ideological or sectarian camps.
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