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The Duplicitous Superpower

Ted Galen Carpenter

For any country, the foundation of successful diplomacy is a
reputation for credibility and reliability. Governments are wary of
concluding agreements with a negotiating partner that violates
existing commitments and has a record of duplicity. Recent U.S.
administrations have ignored that principle, and their actions have
backfired majorly, damaging American foreign policy in the

The consequences of previous deceit are most evident in the
ongoing effort to achieve a diplomatic solution to the North Korean
nuclear crisis. During his recent trip to East Asia, President
Trump urged Kim Jong-un’s regime to “come
to the negotiating table” and “do the right
thing”—relinquish the country’s nuclear weapons
and ballistic missile programs. Presumably, that concession would
lead to a lifting (or at least an easing) of international economic
sanctions and a more normal relationship between Pyongyang and the
international community.

Unfortunately, North Korean leaders have abundant reasons to be wary of such U.S.
enticements. Trump’s transparent attempt to renege on
Washington’s commitment to the deal with Iran known as the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—which the United
States and other major powers signed in 2015 to curb Tehran’s
nuclear program—certainly does not increase Pyongyang’s
incentive to sign a similar agreement. His decision to decertify
Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, even when the United
Nations confirms that Tehran is adhering to its obligations, appears
more than a little disingenuous.

North Korea is likely focused on another incident that raises
even greater doubts about U.S. credibility. Libyan dictator Muammar
Qaddafi capitulated on the nuclear issue in December of 2003,
abandoning his country’s nuclear program and reiterating a
commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In exchange, the
United States and its allies lifted economic sanctions and welcomed
Libya back into the community of respectable nations. Barely seven
years later, though, Washington and its NATO partners
double-crossed Qaddafi, launching airstrikes and cruise missile
attacks to assist rebels in their campaign to overthrow the Libyan
strongman. North Korea and other powers took notice of
Qaddafi’s fate, making the already difficult task of getting
a de-nuclearization agreement with Pyongyang nearly impossible.

The Libya intervention sullied America’s reputation in
another way. Washington and its NATO allies prevailed on the UN
Security Council to pass a resolution endorsing a military
intervention to protect innocent civilians. Russia and China
refrained from vetoing that resolution after Washington’s
assurances that military action would be limited in scope and
solely for humanitarian purposes. Once the assault began, it
quickly became evident that the resolution was merely a fig leaf
for another U.S.-led regime-change war.

Beijing, and especially Moscow, understandably felt duped.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates succinctly described Russia’s reaction,
both short-term and long-term:

The Russians later firmly believed they had been deceived on
Libya. They had been persuaded to abstain at the UN on the grounds
that the resolution provided for a humanitarian mission to prevent
the slaughter of civilians. Yet as the list of bombing targets
steadily grew, it became obvious that very few targets were
off-limits, and that NATO was intent on getting rid of Qaddafi.
Convinced they had been tricked, the Russians would subsequently
block any such future resolutions, including against President
Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The Libya episode was hardly the first time the Russians
concluded that U.S. leaders had cynically misled them . Moscow asserts that
when East Germany unraveled in 1990, both U.S. Secretary of State
James Baker and West German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher
offered verbal assurances that, if Russia accepted a unified
Germany within NATO, the alliance would not expand beyond
Germany’s eastern border. The official U.S. position that
there was nothing in writing affirming such a limitation is
correct—and the clarity, extent, and duration of any verbal
commitment to refrain from enlargement are certainly matters of intense controversy . But invoking a “you
didn’t get it in writing” dodge does not inspire
another government’s trust.

There seems to be no limit to Washington’s desire to crowd
Russia. NATO has even added the Baltic republics, which had been
part of the Soviet Union itself. In early 2008, President George W.
Bush unsuccessfully tried to admit Georgia and Ukraine, which would
have engineered yet another alliance move eastward. By that time,
Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders were beyond furious.

The timing of Bush’s attempted ploy could scarcely have
been worse. It came on the heels of Russia’s resentment at
another example of U.S. duplicity. In 1999, Moscow had reluctantly
accepted a UN mandate to cover NATO’s military intervention
against Serbia, a long-standing Russian client. The alliance
airstrikes and subsequent moves to detach and occupy Serbia’s
restless province of Kosovo for the ostensible reason of protecting
innocent civilians from atrocities was the same
“humanitarian” justification that the West would use
subsequently in Libya.

Nine years after the initial Kosovo intervention, the United
States adopted an evasive policy move, showing utter contempt for
Russia’s wishes and interests in the process. Kosovo wanted
to declare its formal independence from Serbia, but it was clear
that such a move would face a certain Russian (and probable
Chinese) veto in the UN Security Council. Washington and an ad-hoc
coalition of European Union countries brazenly bypassed the Council
and approved Pristina’s independence declaration. It was an
extremely controversial move. Not even all EU members were on board
with the policy, since some of them (e.g., Spain) had secessionist
problems of their own.

Russia’s leaders protested vehemently and warned that the
West’s unauthorized action established a dangerous,
destabilizing international precedent. Washington rebuffed their
complaints, arguing that the Kosovo situation was unique. Under
Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns made
that point explicitly in a February 2008 State Department
briefing. Both the illogic and the hubris of that position were

It is painful for any American to admit that the United States
has acquired a well-deserved reputation for duplicity in its
foreign policy. But the evidence for that proposition is quite
substantial. Indeed, disingenuous U.S. behavior regarding NATO
expansion and the resolution of Kosovo’s political status may
be the single most important factor for the poisoned bilateral
relationship with Moscow. The U.S. track record of duplicity and
betrayal is one reason why prospects for resolving the North Korean
nuclear issue through diplomacy are so bleak.

Actions have consequences, and Washington’s reputation for
disingenuous behavior has complicated America’s own foreign
policy objectives. This is a textbook example of a great power
shooting itself in the foot.

Ted Galen
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books, the
contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700
articles and policy studies on international affairs.