Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:26 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:26 | SYDNEY

Bribery as a tool of statecraft


Sam Roggeveen


21 October 2008 09:48

Tobias Harris at Observing Japan is bracingly honest about America's North Korea policy:

Bowing to the reality of the situation in which the US has few alternatives to committing to negotiations, bilateral and multilateral, the Bush administration has made clear that bribery is now the essence of US North Korea policy. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Given that North Korea's price isn't particularly onerous and given that the alternatives (a war on the Korean Peninsula, unchecked nuclear proliferation, collapse of the DPRK before the US and North Korea's neighbors are prepared to respond) are all worse than bribery, this may be the best possible approach. (My emphasis.)

Bribery of a more personal kind (ie. paying a purse to a foreign diplomat or statesman) has a long history in international diplomacy. As Hans Morgenthau wrote in his classic, Politics Among Nations, it also had some benefits:

Statesmen who participated in transactions of this kind could hardly be expected to be passionately devoted to the cause of the countries whose interests were in their care...Furthermore, the expectation of material gain...could not fail to act as a powerful incentive or expediting the negotiations...In these two respects the commercialization of statecraft in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was bound to blunt the edge of international controversies and confine the aspirations of power of individual nations within relatively narrow limits.

The aristocratic make-up of the European diplomatic class of that time made such transaction acceptable, and the relatively poor communications between diplomats and their home countries made it feasible.

Conditions are clearly different today, and in regard to North Korea, that's perhaps a pity. Since the Pyongyang leadership clearly cares very little about the welfare of its people, you have to wonder whether personal bribes might not work better than ones aimed at improving the lot of North Koreans (eg. food aid, energy supplies etc). Sure, it's morally repugnant, but it beats war.