Senator John Edwards: 'America should... exhaust all diplomatic efforts'

Senator John Edwards was the Democratic 2004 nominee for Vice President (Senator John Kerry's running mate) and a one-term former Democratic Senator from North Carolina. He defeated the incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina's 1998 Senate election. Senator Edwards is now the Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Senator Edwards addressed the Asia Society on The Future of US-China Relations as part of the series entitled "American Political Leaders on the Future of US Relations with Asia." Senator Edwards addressed the Asia Society on October 31st, and gave this interview to Nermeen Shaikh following his speech.

A few very quick questions. You expressed concern about China not being as willing to impose sanctions on North Korea as the United States. You've also worked extensively on poverty issues, and you know, I'm sure, that in North Korea there's a complete humanitarian disaster and there are concerns about people starving…

Yes, yes. Right.

…as well as a large refugee outflow. Why do you think that China should back sanctions unconditionally, given the humanitarian concerns? Because even though the sanctions don't directly affect food aid they do have some effect.

Sure, sure. Well, first, I think it's important to recognize the Chinese have played a really important role in the six-party talks in an effort to deal with this North Korean nuclear situation. The Chinese actually voted for the sanctions in the United Nations, which is unusual for them. And basically, I think America's position is, and should be, that if the Chinese in this circumstance voted for the sanctions then they should be willing to take the steps necessary to implement the sanctions. All the things you expressed are true. I mean, there are obviously concerns about the huge issue of poverty in North Korea. And the Chinese are particularly concerned, as you know, about their border with North Korea and the possibility of a refugee crisis and millions of people coming across the border into China.

You mentioned that North Korea has rejoined the six-party talks and that the Chinese officials you met in China were mentioning that it would be quite easy, in fact, for the US and North Korea to go off and talk to one another. First of all, what do you think the likelihood is of that happening and what do you think the US could gain from direct engagement with North Korea?

I think the chances of success go up significantly if America is willing to engage North Korea directly. And the Chinese believe - because their leadership expressed it to me when I was there - that this is an issue of some pride for the North Koreans. They believe that America should engage them directly, talk to them directly about this. And I think it just raises the potential for success. And whether it will happen or not depends entirely on whether this administration has a change of heart. I mean, I think that a lot of people, both in North Korea and China, believe that this administration's policy, even if it was unspoken, was regime change in North Korea. And because of that it made it more difficult to get both the Chinese and the South Koreans and others to stand sort of with us every step of the way. But I've already expressed this. I think America can be very tough in dealing with the North Koreans but we should be willing to engage them directly.

You mentioned environmental concerns with respect to China. How do you think that they could balance these concerns with the exigencies of economic development, which require such high levels of consumption?

Well, they face, to a greater degree than us, similar problems. I mean, we want to continue to grow the economy in the United States. But we have to get off our dependence on oil. The Chinese face a similar issue. They're going to have to be willing to invest in clean alternative sources of energy. They're building coal fired power plants at the rate of more than one a week. And they need to be willing to invest in the scrubbing technology to prevent the incredible environmental degradation that occurs from all these power plants.

You also mentioned - sorry, very quickly - that Iran getting nuclear weapons is more dangerous than North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons for the United States. Could you explain why that's the case? As you also mentioned, Iran is the main issue for Israel. Do you believe that either Israel or the US should adopt an interventionist military response to prevent this from happening?

This was a quick question? [LAUGHS]

I'm sorry. A yes or a no response. Sorry, it's a complicated issue.

That's a few long questions!

Okay, first of all, why is it the case that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is more dangerous than North Korea for the US?

For a variety of reasons. Number one, they're located in the most volatile region in the world. Number two, they have a president, a leader, who says the Holocaust never occurred and is committed to wiping Israel off the face of the map, who is a sworn enemy of the United States of America. I think the circumstances - the ideology and the location - make it a much more dangerous situation. Not to suggest for a minute that North Korea, that they're moving with their nuclear weapons program is not also dangerous because it is.

Does it warrant a military response from the United States should Iran come closer to the actual acquisition of nuclear weapons?

I think at this point that what America should do is exhaust all diplomatic efforts, and that includes being willing to negotiate directly with the Iranians.

Right, so last question: Could you tell me what you think the three most important foreign policy questions confronting the United States will be in the next ten years?

Well, the first and foremost is how to restore America's leadership in the world because without it the world is in chaos. And there's a huge leadership vacuum. That's the single most important thing. Second, we need to live in a world where the world's great powers are addressing the world's problems -- whether they're HIV-AIDS, global poverty, etc. or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism -- together. And for that to be true, America needs to be engaged with Russia, needs to be engaged with China. I mean, those are the relationships that will determine whether the world's great powers - because it's very likely that we will have that kind of relationship with the Europeans and with the Japanese because we have a very strong values based relationship with them. It's a bigger challenge with the Russians and the Chinese.


Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of the Asia Society.