President Trump’s reelection team and his mainstream detractors share a surprising message: Look, no global security crises! His side takes credit for this. Just wait, his opponents say — better put the adults back in charge before something bad happens.
Both are wrong, and waiting for a grand conflagration misses the point of what Trump’s foreign policy of short-term self-interest and dictator-hugging is unleashing. The Korean Peninsula, no surprise, is Exhibit A.
The core argument for President Trump’s North Korea policy-as-middle-school crush was supposed to be that it kept things stable. Remember 2017, when more of us were worried about being nuked by Kim Jong-un? (And fewer of us were worried about being massacred by white supremacists?)
After even Trump’s biggest fans, and all supporters of peace on the Korean Peninsula, gave up the hope that some huge deal was forthcoming, the two leaders’ dialogue was still, we said, lowering the temperature and thus keeping Americans safe. Kim was, as Trump has reminded us over and over, no longer testing missiles that could reach the United States. At least some humanitarian exchanges — from returning the remains of U.S. servicemen to a joint North-South Olympic team — were occurring. Escalating rhetoric around “fire and fury,” and Trump confidants’ musing about the value of preventive war against the North, stopped.
This summer, tensions have ticked back up: New missiles with deadly implications are flying, and so are threats and rhetoric. But two things are different. First, instead of its being “just” a Pyongyang-Washington spat, we now have the militaries of the North and South, the political leadership of South Korea, and, for good measure, our shared ally Japan at one another’s throats. Second, President Trump isn’t heightening the rhetoric; rather, he seems to be ignoring or failing to deal with the conflicts.
For four months now, Pyongyang has been testing new missiles that, while they can’t reach the U.S. and thus don’t violate Kim’s understanding with his BFF Trump, shift the military balance on the peninsula in the North’s favor. These weapons are easier to conceal and launch without warning, and harder for South Korean missile defense to knock down. The result is to make the South more vulnerable at all times — and trigger fingers itchier to be the first to launch missiles in a crisis.
But Seoul is vulnerable on multiple fronts right now. One of the great achievements of U.S. diplomacy after World War II was to help Japan and South Korea reconcile sufficiently to foster economic and security cooperation and not restart conflict. Japan’s brutality as a colonial power from 1910 to 1945 is still intensely resented in Korea. While some segments of Japanese society, including the new emperor and his father, have moved toward acknowledging and apologizing for past atrocities, Tokyo’s current, conservative government has moved in the opposite direction and is under pressure from its right wing to go further. A set of South Korean court judgments demanding wartime reparations from Japanese firms set off the latest round of trade sanctions and angry rhetoric from both capitals.
In years past, this kind of flare-up would have been met with intense engagement from Washington, offering both pressure and political cover for the governments to cool tensions and resolve substantive issues. This time, National Security Adviser John Bolton traveled to the region once, told the sides they should settle their dispute themselves, and that was that. Meanwhile, Japan’s prime minister and Trump confidant Shinzo Abe marked the anniversary of Korean liberation from Japan by sending a donation to a shrine to Japanese war dead, while South Korean president Moon Jae-in tried his own hand at mediating, pledging that North and South Korea would be reunified by 2045 and calling on Trump and Kim to hold another summit. North Korea quickly rejected the overture, test-firing another two missiles on Friday and saying Moon’s remarks on reunification are so absurd that they would “make the boiled head of a cow laugh.”
Those aren’t the only destabilizing developments in and around Korea. Since China is North Korea’s economic lifeline, no pressure against Pyongyang succeeds unless Beijing wants it to — and right now Beijing is very busy conducting a tariff war against Trump and trying to decide just how hard to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
And Pyongyang isn’t the only power considering destabilizing military developments. Last month, during joint Russian-Chinese military exercises (yes, you read that right), a Russian military aircraft entered South Korean airspace twice.
Trump Pentagon officials, for their part, have been openly musing about stationing more American missiles around Asia, of a type that were banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that the Trump administration just walked away from.
See a pattern here? All of these significant challenges predate Trump. All had been kept under control by the presumption that Washington would work together with allies — and even competitors like China — to stabilize conflicts where necessary and resolve them where possible.
Trump’s worldview, as Anne Gearan pointed out in the Post this week, tells him that none of those disputes matter to Americans, and that we — or at least he — might do better fanning conflicts and taking sides. The risk is that by the time we face a crisis so enormous that it overwhelms the daily domestic dumpster fire that is our new normal — whether that is a North Korean missile or Russian aggression against a NATO ally or a Japan–South Korea fight that shuts down the global economy — we will no longer have the tools and credibility to respond. And it could be a post-Trump president who takes the blame.