North Korea and the Trump administration

North Korea will define America’s position in the world, argues Edward Carr


The simplest-sounding phrase can be the hardest to unpack. To some, “Make America Great Again” was just a campaign slogan. Once President Donald Trump was safely ensconced behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, he would oversee a conventional Republican foreign policy. To others, MAGA signified a momentous shift. Under the new president, America would focus on greatness at home as it freed itself from the costs of trying to sustain the global system it built after the second world war. During his first year Mr Trump has veered between both those tendencies. In 2018 he will have to choose.

The reason is North Korea. Its quest for a nuclear bomb that can hit the continental United States will test Mr Trump’s deepest instincts. As the crisis comes to a head, there will be no room for ambiguity. Will he opt for diplomacy or war? Will he honour his allies or sideline them? Will he strengthen the American order in Asia by working with China, or will he knock it down?

The fiery furnace

The president’s actions in office have often belied his unilaterlist rhetoric. When Bashar al-Assad used nerve gas on his own people, Mr Trump acted as the world’s policeman by sending a volley of cruise missiles in the style of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton (but not Barack Obama). He listened to his generals and boosted troop numbers in Afghanistan­, but did not repeat Mr Obama’s mistake of giving a date for their withdrawal. Having called NATO “obsolete” in the campaign, he used his grandest foreign-policy speech, in Warsaw in July 2017, to endorse it wholeheartedly.

At the same time, Mr Trump has occasionally shown that he is capable of tearing holes in the system. He pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with eleven other countries that would have strengthened America’s position as the strategic linchpin of Asia. In the Middle East he has been ready for Russia to keep the initiative and he has invited Congress to renege on the international nuclear deal with Iran, muttering about his anger if, as expected, it should fail to act. And, speaking at the UN in September, he set out a vision of a world that is spontaneously organised by fiercely independent sovereign states acting together when it suits them—in contrast to the rules-based order built by his predecessors.

That UN speech is, of course, better known for Mr Trump’s threat “to totally destroy North Korea”. For 25 years, presidents have been able to avoid choosing between diplomacy and military action. Mr Trump does not have that luxury. Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, is developing a nuclear warhead that could fit on a missile and survive the journey to Los Angeles. Intelligence reports suggest that he could succeed in the first months of 2019—and he has repeatedly beaten expectations.

Mr Trump could fall back on deterrence and containment, as America eventually did with China when Mao Zedong was acquiring the bomb in the 1960s, and as Mr Obama did with Iran, well before its programme was complete. But that would leave American cities vulnerable to a North Korean strike. Or he could break with the past and use force, risking war and a catastrophic loss of life in north-east Asia.

Mr Trump’s choice will test the alliances with South Korea and Japan, because America’s interests and theirs are not perfectly aligned. True, none of them wants the North to have the bomb. Yet in a war they will be in the line of fire, whereas, even if its ex-pats and soldiers are in danger, America’s mainland will be safe. Around the world, America’s partners will study how Mr Trump weighs his allies’ interests and how he consults with them.

A Chinese question

Mr Trump’s choice will also shape the century-defining relationship between America and China. Genuine co-operation could establish the foundation for the two superpowers to work together extensively. Or Mr Kim’s regime could collapse and American troops be forced to withdraw from South Korea­—strictly, they are there only to protect against the North­—leading to a unified Korea that falls under Chinese influence. Worst of all, Chinese and American troops could end up fighting each other.

If Mr Trump opts to deter and contain North Korea, to honour his allies and to build trust with China, he could yet reinforce the global system that embodies America’s greatness. In foreign policy, as in so much else, he likes to keep people guessing. However, the time for guessing is almost over.

Credit: Getty
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