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Less than two years ago, in his valedictory State of the Union address, Barack Obama declared that “No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin . . . and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.” The truth of his words was debatable at the time, contradicted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and divisive engagement in Syria, not to mention Obama’s own preference for “leading from behind”. North Korea’s bellicose arrival into the club of thermonuclear-equipped countries and Trump’s maladroit response poses an even more fundamental challenge to once straightforward questions of American hegemony.

Trump at the UN on September 19: He exhorted the international community to do more, and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” (©JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama famously declared himself “America’s first Pacific president” and spent a great deal of energy shifting America’s strategic focus and resources to south-east Asia. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was tasked with authoring a 2011 vision for an Asia-focused foreign policy entitled “America’s Pacific Century”. The irony is that the crisis engulfing Asia this autumn may well prove Clinton’s title unexpectedly prophetic, but not in the manner she intended.
The Korean missile crisis has become a microcosm of the mounting difficulties America now faces in asserting power globally. Played out further afield this has consequences on future nuclear proliferation and beyond. The world is sliding from unipolar power to multi-polarity; Trump is as much symptom as cause of this new international reality. Nonetheless, the lack of a coherent Trump strategy or even the worldview necessary to form one significantly worsens all of the international challenges America faces. In the case of the Korean crisis Trump seems to be engaged in a war of rhetoric that emphasises outlandish threats and punishment but has no basis in concrete policy. It remains unclear what specific demands he is making of the North Koreans. Trump’s threat to inflict “fire and fury” on Pyongyang was based on the ultimatum that they “not make any more threats to the United States”. Given that North Korea makes these threats routinely it is not clear what red line Trump was invoking. On the list of threatening activities Pyongyang is currently engaged in, rhetoric should be at the bottom of the list and the cessation of the nuclear programme at the top. Trump’s inverted prioritising of rhetoric over action looks dangerously naive. This conclusion is presumably not lost on North Korea, a state which despite its own outlandish rhetoric is pragmatic enough to have survived since the cessation of combat in the Korean War. Despite years of economic sanctions, North Korea is close to achieving the unthinkable and progressing from being a regional problem to directly challenging US territory, outmanoeuvring America and the rest of the international community.

America’s current fragility was illustrated by several high-profile naval accidents that beset the Pacific Fleet over the summer. The accidents occurred against a backdrop of mishandled relations with Australia and a public undermining of Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” by his former strategist Stephen Bannon, who declared that “there’s no military solution” to North Korea. More importantly, while America withdrew from a series of international agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, Beijing rushed to fill the vacuum and position itself as the champion of free trade. Beleaguered by the scandal of alleged Russian political interference and internal division, the White House has been too distracted to focus. As one prominent Asian op-ed writer, Joseph Chinyong Liow, noted, this has “disrupted the administration’s ability to think strategically about global affairs”. The less charitable interpretation is that Trump’s intemperate response to North Korea, like so many of his outbursts, seems principally motivated by a personal sense of outrage at challenges to his executive power. Almost by definition Trump is not railing against threats to the liberal internationalism that America should be leading. His own rise to power was an equally explicit challenge to that world order. Trump’s opaque slogan “America first” should not be understood to imply global leadership but is better understood as an inward turn.

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