This week the world turned its attention to an unlikely global hot spot: America.

But the distraction from the divisive debate over Charlottesville doesn’t mean other international issues disappeared. In addition to terrorism in Europe, Iran and North Korea continue to convulse the White House. But while the two countries are often conflated, each case is different.

Most profoundly, North Korea has nuclear weapons while Iran doesn’t. And while the Trump administration is trying to coalesce global powers to curb North Korea, world powers are trying to convince the U.S. to adhere to the multinational pact already in place to curb Iran’s ability to develop such weapons.

Beyond Pyongyang and Tehran, the proliferation problem is global, and geopolitical context is key. Indeed nuclear security — this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” topic — often reflects international insecurity.

Some potential proliferators, for instance, might point to the plight of Ukraine, which relinquished its arsenal after the U.S.S.R. dissolved in exchange for guarantees of its territorial sovereignty, among other issues.

That didn’t matter to Vladimir Putin, who as president of Russia presided over the cleaving of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine. These illegal aggressions were no doubt noted by other countries coveting a nuclear deterrent, which is just one of the many reasons why Western sanctions are an appropriate response to Russian aggression.

Ideally, more nations would emulate the example of Kazakhstan, whose leaders believe that discarding its arsenal was a factor in the nation’s post-Soviet success. “We made Kazakhstan a safer place,” said Erzhan Kazykhanov, the nation’s ambassador to the U.S.

Safer, and more prosperous, emphasized the envoy, who was in Minnesota this month to talk trade.

“Only by giving up nuclear weapons did we manage to attract $260 billion in direct foreign investment,” Kazykhanov said. “Had we kept these weapons, it wouldn’t be possible for Kazakhstan to do that because all of our money would have been spent to maintain a nuclear weapon. So we decided to choose another way, get rid of our weapons and concentrate on economic development, and our economy is the biggest economy in the region.”

Iran’s economic potential is significant, too, but the theocracy has hemmed itself in by internal repression and regional bellicosity.

But it has not developed nuclear weapons, a fact that even the Trump administration has certified, despite the president’s excoriation of the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — better known as the nuclear deal — which was hammered out after years of difficult diplomacy.

If Iran remains in compliance with the JCPOA, it’s important that the U.S. not send the wrong signal to other potential proliferators by unilaterally ending the multinational pact.

Trump’s threat to tear up the deal “sends all kinds of messages to all kinds of people,” said Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Because it’s an accord between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus the European Union, “our European allies would be deeply troubled and we’d lose the goodwill of the Chinese who supported this effort.”

“The problem with the agreement,” Manning added, “is that it was an attempt to have a technical solution to a political problem.”

The “political problem” prompted U.S. sanctions for “Iran’s flagrant support for worldwide terrorism, arms smuggling, provocative and destabilizing missile launches, and gross human rights violations,” according to a statement from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

But now Iranian leaders are threatening to abrogate the treaty if the sanctions proceed, prompting Haley to conclude that “the nuclear deal must not become ‘too big to fail.’ ”

There’s no deal with North Korea, but its nuclear threat is a crisis that’s too big for failure, too. That’s especially true for South Korea, where Seoul is easily within range of North Korean missiles.

The Trump administration received another stern warning after talk of a pre-emptive strike this week — not from the North’s irrational Kim Jong Un, but from South Korea’s rational president, Moon Jae-in.

“No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement,” Moon said. “Our government will do everything it can to prevent war from breaking out.”

Beyond Pyongyang’s opaque nature and the instability inherent in Kim’s reckless rhetoric, there may be some rational calculus, however cynical, and potentially lethal.

“It’s apt to characterize the efforts to acquire nuclear weapons as a form of insurance policy for some of these tenuous regimes,” said Joseph Underhill, an Augsburg College associate political science professor. Underhill, who is also program director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, added: “Some see it as a bargaining tool, something that gives them something else to bring to the table as they’re trying to get more recognition and integration into the global economy, the global geopolitical networks.”

Expect the rhetoric to ramp up next week when joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises begin and global attention reverts, at least temporarily, from a troubled America and terror in Europe to a tense East Asia as nuclear security remains a defining issue of an era marked by geopolitical upheaval.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.


Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to