Misperceptions and mistaken policies
‘Under Trump, the US has lost its ability to conduct statecraft: in North Korea it has made a dangerous situation worse’
The United States blinked first. A pipsqueak hermit state emerged on top in its decades-long tussle with the world’s richest and strongest country. The leadership in Pyongyang now has a viable nuclear deterrent. The US, for all the sanctions imposed since the 1990s, and the “fire and fury” threatened by Donald Trump, has ended up in the weaker position, both in its bilateral relations on the Korean peninsula, and more widely.
The details of the failure of US policy towards North Korea itself are laid out well in a new book by Van Jackson, an Obama-era official and academic. On the Brink: Trump, Kim and the Threat of Nuclear War (Cambridge, £18.99) shows how the US systematically misread and underestimated North Korea’s motives and determination. It failed to realise that the regime in Pyongyang regarded starting a war as a less risky option than tolerating US military pressure. Far from deterring the nuclear programme, he argues, threats from outside intensified it.
The consequences of the mistaken policy crystallised in the first year of the Trump administration, as North Korea launched a series of missiles that demonstrated its ability to hit not only US bases in the region, but the continental heartland. An underpowered administration, coupled with a temperamental, tweet-happy president, brought the world to its gravest nuclear crisis since Cuba.
The war of words and mutual misperceptions made this far more perilous than many realised at the time. Luckily, a doveish new government in South Korea, and the prospect of participation (and a joint ice hockey team) in the Winter Olympics there eased tensions. Mr Trump’s craving for positive headlines led to an unexpected about-turn and the empty but friendly summit in Singapore last June. North Korea promised nothing new, but gained a big prize: being treated as an equal. The summit in Hanoi at the end of February also promises show not substance. In short, North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons. Nobody can make it. Everything else is just window-dressing.
What Jackson’s book does not deal with are the more interesting and troubling implications for the rest of the world. Perhaps the first of these is that US coercive diplomacy has lost its bite. In particular, the message to rogue states is clear: get over the nuclear threshold and your problems lessen. Iran faces a ferocious economic and diplomatic squeeze from the US; North Korea, which is a far more dangerous and reprehensible country, gets a jolly photo-op.
The lessons for US allies are sobering too. Japan, for decades the most loyal and important American security partner in East Asia, was left wholly out of the loop on the Korean issue. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, strove mightily to get close to the golf-loving Mr Trump. He might as well have left his clubs in the car for all the difference it made. His rumoured nomination of the US president for a Nobel Peace Prize is an ingenious damage-control tactic. But the fact remains that Japan is now threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons, and its security guarantor does not seem to care.
South Korea should be most worried of all. Mr Trump thinks that “war games”, as he calls US military exercises, are a waste of time; and that keeping US troops abroad at all is a waste of money. The North Korean regime wants to reunite the peninsula, under its own leadership.
That is an ominous constellation. The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is confident that his policy of rapprochement (including a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics) will pay off, on the lines of West German “Ostpolitik” towards communist eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. But that policy had a fallback: a strong transatlantic US security guarantee. South Korea’s comfort blanket, by contrast, looks threadbare. European allies, too, should shiver at the carelessness with which the US now treats its friends.
The bleakest and broadest conclusion is that the US has lost its ability to conduct statecraft. It would be unfair to blame this only on Mr Trump — the Obama and Bush administrations had their share of blunders too, on North Korea and on other fronts. But the problems have intensified. The State Department was sidelined, humiliatingly, during the Korea volte-face. The steadying hands of Jim Kelly (then the chief of staff), H.R. McMaster (then the National Security Adviser) and Jim Mattis (then the Secretary for Defence) are all gone. Their replacements do not inspire confidence.
None of this augurs well for US foreign policy on other fronts. The gravest worry concerns China. If the administration can be outfoxed by a small but determined dictatorship suffering from huge economic and political disadvantages, what chance does the US — and the West in general — have in dealing with the authorities in mainland China? They have hugely greater resources, including real economic heft, serious technological advantages, and deep integration into the outside world through their diaspora. Future administrations will have to work hard to reestablish squandered credibility and expertise. The North Korean fiasco is just the overture to a far more serious story.