Almost five years on and the North Koreans' apparently successful test of a nuclear weapon has delivered what may be a final blow to the Bush doctrine. In the name of preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the US invaded Iraq only to discover that it had no such weapons. But North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear weapon, in spite of the Bush doctrine. The third member of the "axis of evil", Iran, is pressing ahead with its own nuclear program and seems likely to be greatly heartened by North Korean success.
At stake is the survival of the arms control system that has restrained the number of nuclear-armed states for almost 40 years, but which has looked increasingly fragile for the past decade. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the guardian of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, said the test amounted to "the breaking of a de facto global moratorium on nuclear explosive testing that has been in place for nearly a decade". A potentially devastating blow to hopes of preventing a new round of nuclear proliferation around the globe.
The decision amounts to the second and most dramatic setback to international efforts to contain proliferation in recent days, after Iran's refusal to suspend its own nuclear fuel enrichment plans to negotiate a diplomatic solution with the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council.
The critical policy now is to ensure that things don't get any worse-Japan's reaction is the key. Last month, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japan's former prime minister, argued his country should consider developing nuclear weapons. "There are countries with nuclear weapons in Japan's vicinity," he said. "We are currently dependent on US nuclear weapons [as a deterrent], but it is not necessarily known whether the US attitude will continue."
In spite of American declarations that it will not tolerate North Korea's nuclear program, there seems little that the Bush administration can do in the short term. Tougher sanctions will be tried. It is difficult to persuade members of the nuclear weapons club to give up their nukes. Although the Bush administration will have to think about its military options, it seems highly unlikely that the Americans will launch military strikes, such as the bombing raids on North Korean missile-launch sites that some former Pentagon officials have suggested.
The Bush administration blundered in trying to confront North Korea in late 2002 just as it was committing itself to invading Iraq. The Bush administration deserves particular criticism. They had unrealistic expectations of what they could achieve through pressure. The US ability to coerce North Korea is quite limited, especially in the middle of a war with Iraq.
If North Korea "gets away with it", Iran is likely to draw some conclusions that are very unwelcome to the US. The first lesson is that if a country can only get across the nuclear finishing line, it becomes much less vulnerable to military strikes. The second is that the Bush administration's talk of its implacable determination to prevent the spread of WMD to dangerous regimes is just that talk.