While preserving our humanity through lunch in a Cuban restaurant near downtown Portland, a friend and I discussed America’s foreign policy concerning North Korea. My friend alerted me to an article that discusses Robert Gates’ concern over the increasing militarization of U. S. foreign policy. Gates is the former Secretary of Defense, who served the Bush and Obama administrations. My friend was concerned that the problem Gates highlighted related directly to the U. S. decision to give North Korea humanitarian aid for children in the form of food and nutritional supplements in exchange for accountability and a freeze in its nuclear program.
Not everyone sees America’s approach to North Korea on the relation of nuclear weapons to humanitarian aid as problematic; still, the reflection on Gates noted above and an article in the Washington Post should make one stop and consider America’s approach.
What is at stake if and when America ties giving humanitarian aid to military objectives such as calling for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program?
Might it not encourage North Korea to continue its nuclear program? “No nuclear arsenal, no aid,” the logic might go. Also, look at Libya: Libya scrapped its nuclear weapons and the U. S. helped scrap Gaddafi. While Gaddafi was himself a weapon of mass destruction, what kind of signal did the U. S. send to North Korea? “Scrap your nuclear weapons program, and we will dismantle you, too”? I would be surprised if the North Koreans haven’t given serious consideration to the Gaddafi and Libya affair. No doubt, they also find it difficult to compute that the U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear weapons against another country. How do we not appear a bit disingenuous when we call on other nations to dismantle their entire program, when ours is still active and robust?
There are other possible signals to consider. “Do this or else” (scrap your nuclear weapons program or else we will take away food aid) is very different from saying “We will give you humanitarian assistance because your people are in need.” On the latter approach, America operates based on what is right and good, not based on what is deemed as pragmatically valuable. Moreover, if the North Koreans view America as a Christian nation, what does “Do this or else” suggest to the North Koreans concerning Christianity? While the ruler does not bear the sword in vain, it is a vain thing for a Christian to call for bearing the sword against my fellows for whom Christ died. For myself, as an American who is also a Christian, I need to make sure my faith shapes my views on foreign policy. As a Christian and member of the church, I must always place universal human values above political ends. Christians are called to love our enemies and to do good to others regardless of how they respond or react. “Do this or else” should not shape the Christian’s call to ethical action. Rather, the Christian should be shaped by “I care for you whether or not you respond in kind.” My faith is not a private affair. It must shape how I perceive my country’s foreign policy.
All the North Korean people know is “Do this or else.” Shouldn’t America be different? What kind of culture do we create when we operate by “Do this or else” in our society, neighborhoods, and homes? It certainly does not create a culture of collaboration, but of intimidation and manipulation.
Certainly, North Korea’s regime is despotic. Thus, all the more reason to send humanitarian aid to North Korea for the sake of caring for its people. The people have no way of challenging their leaders and holding them accountable, apart from loss of limb and life. Moreover, how would they ever be strong enough to call for increasing freedoms if they remain too hungry to stand up for themselves? President Bush’s calling North Korea a part of an axis of evil did not help matters. Nor does the present administration’s tying of humanitarian aid to military goals.
We need to help the North Koreans see that the U. S. is not a threat to them. We need them to see we are a friend in waiting. Humanitarian aid for the sake of caring for our fellow humans is the best way to achieve this goal. “A starving child knows no politics,” as President Reagan famously argued. How will these children ever come to trust us if they see that America only gives humanitarian assistance to them for its own political purposes?
Humiliation involving the connection between military ambitions and humanitarian aid is humilitarized aid. This course of action is unethical, whether or not it appears strategic politically and militarily. Threat of force or enforced famine and the offer of food in exchange for North Korean compliance to freeze its nuclear program do not go together. We need to make sure we are offering humanitarian aid, not humiliation aid. Foreign policy along humilitarized lines must become foreign to us so that the North Korean people come to view us as good neighbors and global friends, not foreign, menacing enemies.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.