Trump’s strategic incoherenceAs U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson begins his first trip to Southeast Asia, those in the region can be forgiven for being confused about what the Trump administration’s policies actually are toward flashpoints like North Korea.
On grave issues of war and peace, especially when nuclear weapons are involved, clarity and consistency is critical for a Great Power to reduce the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is frightfully incoherent, even as hysteria and war fever surrounds the North Korea debate.
Neither U.S. allies nor adversaries can discern what the actual U.S. policy toward North Korea is. Why do I say this? Toward the South China Sea, will the U.S. seek to rollback the new facts or just demonstrate its commitment to freedom of navigation? On North Korea, is the policy deterrence, pre-emption or regime change?
Witness the dizzying array of contradictory statements:
Exhibit A: On August 3, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson articulated a clear, sensible policy:
“We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula,” he promised. “We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. And we’re trying to convey that to the North Koreans.
“We are not your enemy. We’re not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them.”
Unfortunately, at the same time, we have Exhibit B: Senator Lindsey Graham said on the Today Show that President Trump told him that, ”There will be a war with North Korea over the missile program if they continue to try hit America.” Yet the Tweeter-in-chief himself has called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a “smart cookie” and said that under the right conditions he would be “honored to meet with him.”
Then there is Exhibit C: Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told an Aspen Institute forum that it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability.” He suggested that the clock was ticking and that the administration is giving diplomacy only “a few more months.”
How about Exhibit D: UN Ambassador Nikki Haley chiming after North Korea’s second ICBM test that “the time for talk is over.”
And hard to top Exhibit E: the press reported that CIA Director Mike Pompeo, also at the Aspen forum recklessly said that the administration is developing “a range of options” and that he was “hopeful” that the U.S. could “find a way to separate that regime from” their nuclear weapons. This implies regime change — directly contradicting Secretary Tillerson’s effort to articulate an authoritative policy.
What’s going on here? Obviously, part of the problem is Trump’s incessant, impulsive tweeting. He seems desperate for instant gratification: If China hasn’t solved the North Korea problem three days after Xi Jinping promised, he is very disappointed. Clearly, this is not rational thinking.
But North Korea is the No. 1 Asia policy issue that will dominate the regional security forum this week. The current frenzied Washington political climate was spun up by a flawed, leaked CIA report that North Korea would have an operational ICBM by 2018.
But the larger problem is a lack of a disciplined inter-agency policy process. On major policy issues there is a need for a “point person,” someone senior in charge who reports to the President.
The fact that there are still some 350 Senate-confirmable positions for which Trump has not announced nominees is no small factor. There is, for example, no new U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, no new Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, no Undersecretary for Policy, etc. The list goes on. It is these senior advisors who usually are key to formulating and managing policy day-to-day, week-to-week.
One wonders if the war fever might have been tempered if key policy managers were in place. But in any case, this is no way to run a railroad. This strategic incoherence is becoming a constant feature of Trump foreign policy: Is China our partner, or not? Do we end NAFTA or update it?
President Trump has a point that unpredictability can be useful. But capricious, erratic and fundamentally contradictory public policy views can lead to catastrophic, unintended consequences.
An earlier version of this column appeared on The Hill.
*The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior advisor to the Asst. Secretary of East Asia and the Pacific (1989-93), Counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012. Find him on Twitter: @RManning4.
Robert A. Manning