Buckle up, everyone. This is the week that the Trump administration’s plan to remake international relations in its own bellicose, America First image hits its biggest tests. South Korean president Moon Jae-in is set to arrive in Washington on Tuesday as as the administration tries to nail down the arrangements for President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Last week Washington and Beijing announced a sweeping new trade understanding, but there are serious doubts about whether it can deliver. In another region of the world — which is being closely watched by both Beijing and Pyongyang — the Trump administration unveiled its vision of what happens now that it’s pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement.
It’s fashionable to deride Trump and his team as having no plans, no strategy, and no long view on international affairs. But this misses something important. Trump, as well as the team around him, appears to have taken it as an article of faith that they are tougher negotiators, and more credible when threatening U.S. force, than the presidents of both parties who preceded them. They believe military might is by far the most important force in international relations, and that the United States should use and threaten it more to get its way. Their view of who the “America” is that U.S. foreign policy supports and defends is more narrow, and thus has less in common with the people of the world beyond our shores. That’s why they’re so skeptical of win-win outcomes, and the international norms and institutions that make compromise possible.
This was apparent in the first foreign policy matter the White House addressed on Monday: what happens post–Iran deal. It’s only been two weeks since Trump took down the six-party accord blocking Tehran’s nuclear weapons program — not coincidentally, Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. After days of embarrassing media coverage quoting insiders and allies saying, “There is no ‘plan B,’” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rolled one out in a speech to the Heritage Foundation — though it was basically just a U.S. wish list wrapped around a call for regime change.
Pompeo’s plan B for Iran didn’t include the outline of a stronger deal, or any deal at all. Instead, it contained a list of 12 things Iran must do: stop enriching uranium for any purpose, peaceful or military; allow inspectors to visit any site in the country uninhibited; end its support for proxy forces such as Hezbollah and other guerrilla groups in Syria.
Pompeo didn’t offer a timeline, or a strategy, or a forum in which the U.S. and other nations could pressure Teheran to accept these terms. Nor did he mention anything Iran might get in return for taking these steps — which is usually how negotiations work. Instead, he suggested that “the Iranian people would set the timeline” — one of many not-so-subtle references to the idea that Iran’s government is failed and illegitimate, and should be replaced via a popular uprising. Pompeo even called particular attention to the fight for women’s rights in Iran, which might have been more impressive if it didn’t highlight the administration’s thunderous silence as its Saudi allies rounded up 30 years of women’s rights activists last week.
When Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James asked Pompeo what his strategy was to get other nations onboard, he responded that the U.S. would be sending teams around the world to explain the U.S. position, “and to listen.” The initial responses from Europeans and U.S. experts after the speech suggest that they’ll be hearing a great deal of skepticism and hostility.
Administration officials, and the foreign policy conservatives who support them, believe that the Iran deal’s weaknesses encouraged North Korean intransigence, and that tearing up the former will enable them to get a stronger deal with Pyongyang. But judging from recent developments with North Korea, destroying the Iran deal didn’t boost Trump’s negotiating position.
Last week, the White House’s narrative around Trump’s June 12 meeting with Kim took several hard hits. Pyongyang threatened to cancel the summit over ongoing U.S.-South Korean exercises — even though Washington had agreed not to include some of its most fearsome offensive weapons. And the North’s chief nuclear negotiator said that his country would never trade away its nuclear weapons for economic assistance — exactly what the White House apparently believed it was on track to achieve.
What brought this on? For weeks, North Korean experts, from the most dovish to the most warlike, have been unusually united in saying that Kim’s apparent promises to get rid of nuclear weapons and shift Pyongyang’s policy orientation should not be taken at face value. This kind of shift was, to them, entirely expected.
National Security Adviser John Bolton gave Pyongyang a reason to lash out when he went on TV to talk about the “Libya option.” To policy wonks, that refers to Libya’s 2003 decision to send its small nuclear program to Tennessee in exchange for promises of economic assistance. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had seen Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Hussein himself, meet a humiliating end, and wanted to be back on the West’s good side.
Of course, things didn’t turn out well for Qaddafi either. Pyongyang is well aware that in 2014, he was pulled from a ditch where U.S. bombs had chased him, then slaughtered by militants. Eager talk of regime change in Iran, and Trump’s own apparent interpretation of the Libya model as “a total decimation,” make it hard to believe the Trump administration wants Kim’s oppressive regime to endure in peace, however often Trump compliments a man who had his own sibling murdered, and an American student beaten to death.
Other aspects of Trump’s North Korea strategy are on shaky ground as well. The White House seems to be trying to slow down China’s rapprochement with North Korea by accepting a framework deal on trade that involves the United States suspending $150 billion in new Trump tariffs until after the North Korea summit. But it contains no specifics from the Chinese side, no timeline, and few concrete action items. Trump is still fretting on Twitter about Chinese economic support for Pyongyang, and with reports of infighting among his economic advisers, it’s unclear how long the agreement will stand.
Despite their belief that bullying is what gets results in US foreign policy, there are intense divisions among Trump advisers and their allies. Bolton and Pompeo have said publicly contradictory things on North Korea. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro reportedly had profane screaming matches last week in Beijing. Congressional Republicans and manufacturing leaders are irate about the cave on economics. And now Trump himself is said to be having doubts about the North Korea summit. The White House already claimed that the recent détente in North Korea shows its “maximum pressure” campaign is working, and Trump made a quip about the possibility that he might win the Nobel Peace Prize. Now he’s facing serious embarrassment if the talks don’t work out (not to mention an increased threat of nuclear war).
That puts both American politics and international security in uncharted territory. It’s not every day one compares Trump and LBJ. But the last time an American president went ahead with an international strategy he didn’t believe in, for fear of his domestic constituencies, tens of thousands of additional American casualties — and untold Vietnamese ones — were the result.