Kofi Annan has again urged us to be wise and to refrain from the self-defeating practice of playing superpower bully. In the wake of North Korea’s reported nuclear weapons test, the outgoing UN secretary-general was clear that Pyongyang’s nuclear test was “unacceptable.”

Instead of the militarized sanctions, he urged bilateral negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Just over a decade ago, it took former President Carter’s courageous and creative diplomatic intervention to save Bill Clinton and the Korean people from the young president’s arrogant belief that we would prevail in the game of nuclear chicken. President Bush has yet to learn the lessons of that crisis, nor has he learned those of his disastrous invasion of Iraq. Instead, he insists that the crisis with Pyongyang be resolved on terms that he dictates. He refuses bilateral negotiations and warns that “all options [including nuclear attack] are on the table.”

Like Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter is advising that “what must be avoided is to leave a beleaguered nuclear nation convinced that it is permanently excluded from the international community, its existence threatened.” It is no secret that since its reported nuclear test, Pyongyang has repeated what it has been saying for years: it can accept a denuclearized Korean peninsula if the U.S. will engage in bilateral negotiations. Still imaginative, President Carter reminds us that Bush’s rejection of bilateral talks can be “finessed through secret discussions with a trusted emissary like former Secretary of State Jim Baker” who has noted that it is “not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

This crisis is not an aberration. Rather, it is a systemic product of 60 years of U.S. nuclear arrogance, as well as being a consequence of Bush-Cheney imperial fantasies and their “romance of ruthlessness.”

Years ago, speaking in Hiroshima, Joseph Rotblat, the former Manhattan Project senior scientist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, reminded us that humanity faces a stark choice: We can completely eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals, or we will witness their global proliferation and their genocidal — potentially omnicidal — consequences. Because no nation will long tolerate an unjust imbalance of power — in this case, threatened nuclear annihilation — governments will do what they can to rectify that imbalance, including in some cases seeking nuclear weapons of their own. The discriminatory hierarchy of nuclear terrorism is thus inherently unstable and cannot endure. Pursuing nuclear superiority and making nuclear threats inevitably results in nuclear weapons proliferation.

Beginning with the UN General Assembly’s first resolution in 1945, the vast majority of the world’s nations have sought security through nuclear weapons abolition. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which followed roughly 25 years later, provided that in exchange for the non-nuclear nations foreswearing nuclear weapons ambitions, the nuclear powers would provide them technologies for nuclear power generation, and Article VI committed the Nuclear Five to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

Six years ago, under pressure from the world’s nations during the NPT Review Conference, the declared nuclear weapons states led by the United States reiterated their “irrevocable commitment” to implement Article VI and to take 13 still neglected steps toward its fulfillment. Last year, more than 150 nations, including U.S. allies, voted for a UN resolution calling for negotiation of a nuclear weapons abolition convention. Only five countries voted no: the U.S., Britain, France, Israel and India.

There is also the legacy of U.S. nuclear threats. Unlike any other nation, on more than 30 occasions since the A-bombing of Nagasaki, every U.S. president has prepared or threatened to initiate first-strike nuclear attacks during crises, confrontations and wars. This has led nations — including North Korea and Iran — to seek deterrent nuclear forces. Since 1950, the U.S. has threatened North Korea with nuclear attack at least eight times. Nearly a dozen such threats have been made during Middle East wars and crises. Since the end of the Cold War, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya have been threatened with U.S. nuclear attacks. And, the 2002 Bush-Cheney Nuclear Posture Review named seven nations as primary U.S. nuclear targets: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, Libya and Syria.

The Bush administration compounded these structural and historical crises with its arrogant approach to the two Koreas. In one of his first foreign policy blunders, two months after assuming office, President Bush humiliated South Korea’s courageous Prime Minister Kim Dae-jung and derailed the nearly completed disarmament process with North Korea initiated by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In response, North Korea resumed development of what appears to be its primitive nuclear weapons program, and the U.S.-South Korean alliance has been in shambles.

The stakes of the U.S.-Korean crisis are far greater than is popularly understood. More immediate than the decade or so that it will take North Korea to develop nuclear weapons that work and missiles that could reach Seattle, or the possibility it might export nuclear technologies, is the danger of a catastrophic Northeast Asian arms race. Japan’s new nationalist prime minister is not only the grandson of a Class A war criminal later nurtured by the CIA, but a man who has advocated that Japan — which has hundreds of tons of weapons grade plutonium and missiles that can reach the moon — become a nuclear weapons state with a first-strike policy. Given the still deep wounds of Japan’s brutal conquest and colonization of much of China and all of Korea, a Japanese nuclear weapons program would likely lead China to jettison its “minimum deterrent” nuclear policy. A dangerous 21st century nuclear arms race involving the U.S. would then be fully engaged.

This need not be our future. Anticipating Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, during the week before the North Korean test, a delegation of senior Japanese nuclear weapons abolitionists — including A-bomb survivors — reminded U.S. audiences that the world is almost completely unified in opposing a North Korean A-bomb. They also warned that much of the world is aghast at the prospect of the world’s superpower, with its arsenal of 15,000 deployed and stockpiled thermonuclear weapons, feeling so threatened by North Korea that it refuses patient bilateral negotiations with the desperately poor and isolated country and threatens military actions and war.

As awful as they were, the archetypical Cold Warriors Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did not hesitate to negotiate with Soviet and Chinese leaders. Why then do Bush and Cheney fear testing Pyongyang’s offer of a denuclearized Korean peninsula in exchange for bilateral negotiations? Why not use those negotiations to engage the six-party negotiators to create a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone like those in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the South Pacific, Africa and Latin America? And, why not prevent future nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear wars by honoring our “irrevocable commitment” to Article VI of the NPT and by implementing the 13 steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference?

Dr. Joseph Gerson is director of programs for the American Friends Service Committee in New England and author of the forthcoming “Empire and the Bomb: How the United States Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.” This article is reprinted from “Peacework,” a publication of the AFSC, with permission of the author.