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Former Officials Discuss Recent Intl. Developments

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - May 27, 2009

MARGARET WARNER: To add to the administration's nuclear proliferation pressures this week came new defiant words from Iran's President Ahmadinejad. Once again, he warned the U.S. and the West not to interfere with Tehran's nuclear development program.

How can the American president deal with the challenges and dangers of this new nuclear world?

For that, we turn to Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser during the Carter administration, now counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Philip Zelikow, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and now a professor of history at the University of Virginia.

And welcome to you both. Professor Brzezinski, has any American president ever faced nuclear proliferation challenges on this many fronts at once?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: No, I have to say that that hasn't happened before. And it's quite ominous, and it emphasizes the importance of the United States doing what it can to work with other states in responding to this.

It may come to the point that the United States has to respond alone -- for example, if South Korea and Japan were in danger, because we are committed as an ally to these two countries.

But as a general proposition, the more we can work with other states in responding, the better it will be, the more likely we can handle it, and, of course, the less likely that we'll be engaged in a prolonged and solitary conflict.

PHILIP ZELIKOW, University of Virginia: Well, we could argue about different periods in which there were a number of different nations about to go nuclear. In fact, nearly 20 years ago, you had North Korea and Pakistan getting ready to go nuclear, and Iraq also trying to develop nuclear weapons. Now we've got the Iranian dimension.

Here's the big picture, though, to keep in mind. We're engaged in a 60-year struggle to contain the diffusion of nuclear weapons. We're now seeing another round in a long, long struggle, but it's a really important round, because we're really at a crossroads that we haven't been at before.

On the one hand, you have the path that President Obama laid out in his speech in Prague in which he now says the United States wants to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. He wants these weapons to go away.

On the other hand, you have a series of developments that to a lot of the world is saying, not only are these weapons not going away, there are going to be a lot more of them. We're going to democratize nuclear weapons.

So I think, actually, we're going to go in one of these two directions. We're either going to convincing start reducing them with global initiatives led by the United States and then using that global initiative to rally others and defeat the short-term problem, which is to head off dangers from countries like North Korea and Iran and show that, no, that's not going to be the future path.

Because if we get through this crisis and the world concludes it's going to be a world of more nuclear weapons, all hopes of eliminating them will finish.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, that there is a danger here of a kind of breakout or bust-out, where you suddenly -- the U.S. will have a lot more nuclear-armed states and many who may not be or some who may not be deterred by the old deterrence kind of strategy?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think that, in the near future, there are not that many more states that are likely to go nuclear quickly. But we do have a very specific and urgent problem in our hands, which we really can't address on the basis of sort of large global schemes, whatever they are. These are practical and immediate problems.

We have to cool off the situation in the Far East. And the best way to do it is to get China, and Russia, and Japan to work as close as they can with us.

And we have to be able to, in some fashion, help the Pakistani government to maintain itself, lest its nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the Taliban.

And then, beyond that, of course, we have to explore seriously with our friends whether the Iranians are prepared to negotiate seriously. These are immediate tasks.

Now, that's kind of the -- we've also said those sorts of things. I mean, is there anything new here? Or does there need to be something new here?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: I think there does need to be something new. It's really hard to question that the United States has gone the extra mile on diplomacy with North Korea, some might argue too far.

But the United States has given that a good-faith try. And most importantly, our allies in the region all agree that we gave this a good-faith try.

Well, diplomacy is not working. Now it's time to concentrate on how we defend ourselves, because so they're embarked on a path in which they have different goals than we do. And we've set up various tests which they have now unequivocally failed. And so now we have to concentrate on containing and limiting this danger.

I would, by the way, add that a new U.N. Security Council resolution might not help you. We already have a terrific U.N. Security Council resolution on the books. It's been broken. We should now take actions responding to the violation of that norm set by the international community.

A new resolution that seems to limit our freedom of action will only reinforce the image of impotence. It won't make us look more powerful.

MARGARET WARNER: Give me one quick example of a new action, then I want to get back to...

PHILIP ZELIKOW: A new action could be, for instance, that we would cut off the channels of proliferating nuclear material that may have supplied nuclear material from North Korea to Libya and to Syria, commercial and financial conduits. We can act against those.

MARGARET WARNER: What would do you on North Korea?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I think we've been doing, actually, a lot of that, and we should continue doing that.

The more immediate problem is to make certain that the other nations concerned, particularly China, Russia, Japan, are with us in a collective response. If they are, then we could even conceivably impose additional sanctions that are much more painful and visible, namely, interference with shipments to North Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: And if they aren't?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: And if they aren't, then I am afraid the choice for us is a very difficult one. We can try to do it alone, but with the risk that this could lead to confrontation in which we would then be alone.

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