The fear of chaos
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.
Veteran reporter Bob Woodward’s book on President Trump is titled simply “Fear: Trump in the White House.” In the first instance, the book is about the administration’s chaotic decision-making process. But a deeper theme is how President Trump — and the party of Trump — are at war with strategic assumptions that have undergirded American foreign policy for decades.
Not surprisingly, Korea crops up throughout the book, and in fact opens the very first chapter. In September 2017, Gary Cohn is in the Oval Office and sees a letter on the president’s desk. Reproduced in the book, the letter consists of one short paragraph to President Moon announcing the U.S. intention to withdraw from the Korus free trade agreement.
In a stunning decision, Cohn — former president of Goldman Sachs and chief economic adviser to the president in the White House — decides to simply remove the letter. His justification — quoted to Woodward by a source, probably Cohn himself: “Got to protect the country.” More surprising still: Trump didn’t even notice.
The case was not isolated. Cohn, Secretaries Mattis, Tillerson and Mnuchin and key advisors such as Rob Porter are portrayed as fighting a running battle to save the President, and the country, from his own impulsive and intuitive style of decision-making.
Woodward describes an odd alliance between Cohn and Mattis to try to educate the president to the broader value of alliances by inviting him to the Pentagon for a briefing. Mattis — a general — opens by saying that the rules-based international democratic order was at the core of America’s long postwar success; the U.S. did not succeed on its own. Trade, intelligence sharing, and alliances were all part of sustaining American power.
Trump was having none of it. His dominant view of the allies in both Asia and Europe was that they were free riders. International agreements — and particularly those signed by Obama — were all disasters: the Korus, the Iran deal, the Paris climate accord. The meeting ended in bitter acrimony, as the president stormed out over Thaad and the costs of sustaining the alliance with Korea. He is repeatedly cited as wanting no American troops on the peninsula at all.
Tillerson’s conclusion at the time: “He’s a [expletive] moron.” In six months, Tillerson would be gone.
The book has interesting revelations about North Korea as well, and is not entirely kind to the Obama administration. In Woodward’s view, the Obama team minimized the extent to which North Korean capabilities were advancing and did little to generate a new approach.
Trump’s views on North Korea were a bundle of contradictions. On one hand, he was much less cautious than the Obama administration about diplomacy. Trump suggested in May 2017 that he would meet Kim Jong-un anywhere, any time.
But at the same time, he saw confrontations of this sort in highly personal terms, as a test of wills: “… leader vs. leader. Man vs. man. Me vs. Kim.” Trump always saw his unpredictability as a strategic plus. In a stunning revelation, Woodward describes how in January 2018 Trump considered sending a tweet that he was ordering all American military dependents to leave Korea. Needless to say, North Korea would see this as the prelude to an attack and had said as much. He dropped the idea, but still said on national television that such dependents shouldn’t be in Korea.
But no one could figure out the North Korean endgame. What did name-calling and “fire and fury” really accomplish? National Security Adviser McMaster orchestrated a pressure campaign that had military as well as economic elements. But the low point of North Korean diplomacy came when Trump argued that the nuclear button on his desk was larger than Kim’s, setting off serious panic about the fitness of the president to preside over the American nuclear arsenal.
Woodward’s book does not take us through the decisions that got us to the Singapore summit. For many North Korea watchers the summit was a calculated risk worth taking. But with the president once again distracted by domestic politics, the course forward on North Korea is as uncertain as it has ever been.
Woodward titled his book after a comment Trump made during the campaign, that “real power is — I don’t even know how to use the word — fear.” But the title carries a deeper — and sadder — meaning. Many Americans — and our allies — are fearful of the Trump administration not because of the power the president wields, but because of the chaos and capriciousness of his decision-making.