The Bush administration is facing major challenges in the foreign policy arena, as the president prepares to begin his second term in office. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the issue of nuclear non-proliferation.
Foreign policy experts say in the next four years, the Bush administration will have to deal effectively with two countries, Iran and North Korea, in an effort to curtail the possible spread of nuclear weapons.
The United States and Europe believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran says its program is aimed at producing fuel for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear power generation.
Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' International Relations Committee, says President Bush faces very difficult choices in Iran.
"I don't think the United States has developed a clear, comprehensive policy toward Iran in decades," said Mr. Hamilton. "He [Mr. Bush] is going to have to decide how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. He's got several choices. He can open up a direct dialogue with the Iranians. He can use diplomatic and economic levers to try to isolate Iran. He can try to use military force to destroy nuclear sites or to bring about regime change: those are all very tough calls and yet I think some action by an American president, by President Bush in his next term, will be required, because Iran is clearly on the path toward nuclear weapons."
President Bush has made clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. For Leon Fuerth, who was National Security adviser to former Vice-President Al Gore, that statement has an ominous ring.
"If you know what you are saying and are careful, those words have an absolute, clear meaning," explained Mr. Fuerth. "They carry with them the sound of a revolver being cocked. But in diplomacy, you can sort of put the thing back in the holster and pretend you didn't mean it. So now we'll have to find out what he means."
European governments have been in the forefront of efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear question through negotiation. Iran recently announced it had reached a preliminary agreement with Britain, France and Germany on its disputed nuclear program. But the accord was immediately criticized by hardliners in Iran. And in an interview with Britain's Financial Times newspaper Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said there was no agreement yet.
On North Korea, the United States has been saying for several years that Pyongyang has a secret nuclear weapons program. Since then, North Korea has pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, expelled U.N. monitors and restarted a nuclear facility it had promised to dismantle in 1994. For more than a year now, the United States and its allies have emphasized diplomacy, but the so-called six-party talks have stalled.
Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy expert with the Brookings Institution, says President Bush will have to decide whether he wants to accelerate the diplomatic process.
"We are moving towards a de facto status quo where North Korea is a nuclear power, whether we want to acknowledge it or not and the longer you let that sink in, the harder it ever becomes to reverse," he said. "So the question is, would some kind of new diplomatic strategy that perhaps encouraged some of our friends in the region to offer North Korea more incentives even if we don't want to directly ourselves, would that kind of new approach be appropriate in the context of the six-party talks."
Experts say whether it is dealing with Iran or North Korea, the United States cannot resolve those problems alone.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Mack says Washington must work with other countries.
"We don't have the answers by ourselves on how to deal with the question of nuclear proliferation," said Mr. Mack. "We are going to have to do it in an international context. We are going to have to be willing to share the leadership of this. We are going to have to be willing to share the burdens of pursuing this. We can get a great deal of international solidarity on these issues if we proceed in a collaborative and internationalist approach."
Experts say in order to foster this collaborative and internationalist approach, Washington must first mend fences with some European governments and restore the transatlantic alliance, damaged by the U.S. intervention in Iraq.