The notion that President Donald Trump has no coherent ideological principles or agenda has become a common refrain among his liberal critics, to the point of banality. Particularly in the realm of foreign policy, it is an article of faith among these critics that Trump has no doctrine to speak of, but makes decisions reactively, based on his instincts and whatever the last person he spoke with told him.
In fact, Trump does have a foreign-policy doctrine, but it’s a bad and simplistic one, and it is demonstrating its ineffectuality spectacularly in the rapidly escalating crisis in North Korea.
The Trump doctrine, in a nutshell, is that the United States is by leaps and bounds the most powerful country in the world, and by all rights should be taking greater advantage of that power. Any agreement we make, with friend or foe, should favor us absolutely; if not, there’s no reason for us to maintain it. When we tell other countries what to do, they had better listen, and if they don’t, we shouldn’t do business with them. Diplomatic and trade relations with the U.S. are privileges, and the threat of withdrawing those privileges is a shamefully underused lever for shaping other countries’ behavior.
Trump amply articulated this philosophy on the campaign trail last year and it has imbued his administration’s foreign policy in practically every arena. The Iran nuclear deal was a bad deal because it didn’t sufficiently cripple Iran, so we didn’t “win” at it. The Paris climate agreement was a bad deal because it imposed costs on the U.S., and NAFTA was a bad deal because it created more jobs for Mexicans than for Americans. The agreements with Iraq and Afghanistan to withdraw our forces after years of occupation were bad deals because they let the Iraqis and Afghans dictate terms to the U.S., without even giving us a cut of their oil or mineral wealth.
And, of course, Trump’s solutions to foreign-policy problems are entirely coercive, based mainly on economic threats. Either Canada and Mexico agree to rewrite NAFTA to our advantage, or we pull out; either China stops deflating the cost of its exports, or we impose tariffs; either NATO members take on a greater share of mutual defense obligations, or we stop participating in the alliance; either Pakistan cracks down on the Taliban, or we cut off support for that country.
Nowhere is this doctrine working out particularly well for the Trump administration, but nowhere is it faring worse than in North Korea. Over the past month, Pyongyang and Washington have traded threats, provocations, and shows of force in an escalating game of chicken that has so far led up to North Korea testing something that sure sounds like a hydrogen bomb. If it does indeed have the capability to mount that bomb on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S., that dramatically changes the calculus for the U.S. and all of our allies in the region.
In this back-and-forth, Trump may think he has been practicing coercive diplomacy on Kim Jong-un, but if so, he has it backward: Kim is no more afraid of the U.S. military today than he ever was, whereas America — to say nothing of South Korea, Japan, and even China — is feeling considerably more threatened. That is because the North Korean dictator has known all along that while the U.S. would defeat his country utterly in a hypothetical war, there’s no way we can wipe out his army, artillery, and command structure in time to prevent him from raining death and destruction on South Korea first, using either conventional or nuclear weapons. Kim does not believe Trump’s threats, and as such they have served only as opening acts for Kim’s increasingly spectacular displays of intransigence.
Trump’s approach to China is suffering from similar issues. His latest threat to halt all trade with China if it doesn’t cut off North Korea’s economic lifeline is transparently unconvincing: If it were even possible to force U.S. companies to stop doing business with the world’s second-largest economy (a big if), such a policy would have such severe and lasting consequences for the American and global economies that Beijing surely knows even Trump isn’t crazy enough to pull that trigger.
Kim’s threats, by contrast, are credible: not because he actually intends to launch a nuclear missile at Guam or Hawaii or California, but because merely having the ability to do so gives him leverage he did not have before. Furthermore, as Georgetown professor and former deputy assistant to President Obama Colin Kahl pointed out on Twitter on Sunday, a North Korean nuclear ICBM changes the equation by making it much less easy for us to assure our allies in East Asia that we will stand beside them in a conflict with the North Koreans.
If Kim is able to nuke Seoul or Tokyo but not San Francisco, those allies could be sure that we would defend them in a confrontation, even at the nuclear level, because we’d run no risk in doing so. But if Pyongyang really can launch a nuclear warhead at the U.S. (at very least, they are getting close), the U.S. will need to work extra hard to convince South Korea and Japan that we have their backs and so there is no need for them to pursue their own weapons programs and start a regional nuclear arms race. Instead, Trump — blindly following the logic of his doctrine — is threatening to withdraw from our free-trade agreement with South Korea (which, like all things that contribute to U.S. trade deficits, he considers a bad deal).
Even to speak of such a bewildering move in the midst of perhaps the most serious crisis of nuclear diplomacy since 1962 is a crime against common sense, but it is abundantly clear by now that threats are the only diplomatic moves Trump knows how to make. To be sure, coercive diplomacy has a valuable role in America’s geostrategic arsenal, but diplomacy that consists solely of coercion is not diplomacy. Nuclear politics do not work like the Atlantic City casino business.
The solution to this crisis, to the extent that there even is one anymore, is clearly not in Trump’s toolbox. We know, by the way, that adopting a “tough” posture and refusing to talk out of fear of rewarding bad behavior is a failed strategy for dealing with North Korea because we tried it before, during the Bush administration, and the long-term results of that policy are staring us in the face today.
Defusing the crisis with North Korea requires the kind of leadership that understands its full range of diplomatic options and appreciates how a powerful country can sometimes make affordable if unappetizing gestures of conciliation in the interest of peace without projecting weakness. It also requires the ability to see other countries as allies and partners, not merely as economic rivals out to screw us with bad trade deals. The Trump doctrine of threats, coercion, and nothing else doesn’t have a place for such relationships.