Trump’s Version of Realpolitik Produces Results with North Korea
Pyongyang’s retreat on Guam marks a significant victory for President Donald Trump and his entire administration and shows that the United States can still lead on the world’s stage without putting service members’ lives at risk.
Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” toward North Korea alone did not produce the change of heart (and possibly bowels) in the pudgy dictator of the hermit kingdom. Cooperation engendered by diplomats, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and national security advisers with China and America’s allies deserve far more credit. It required a combination of trading threat for threat and fostering goodwill abroad to force North Korea to blink.
Trump’s verbal broadside at North Korea was what the most rabid of American warmongers could have ever dreamed a president would say. To critics, it merely offered more proof that there is a novice in the White House whose impulsive disposition places the entire world in danger of a nuclear holocaust.
Despite his bluster, however, his administration worked behind the scenes to ensure that the U.S. would not have to fight a diplomatic war with China while facing the prospect of a nuclear strike on its territory.
Nikki Haley convinced China to agree to the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions on North Korea which passed unanimously on August 5 by agreeing that the U.S. would cease threats to retaliate against China’s unfair trade practices.
China does not want the North Korean regime to fall, and Kim Jong Un’s toying with war against the U.S., while relying on the Chinese military to come to his rescue, does not sit well with the Chinese. China feels that if the North Korean regime fell and the Korean nations united, China would be surrounded by hostile allies of the U.S and its reputation would be damaged.
Another factor is if the communist regime in Pyongyang falls, millions of North Korean refugees would flood across China’s borders, which neither the government in Beijing, nor the Chinese people want.
In South Korea, Trump’s comments did not exactly meet with a roar of approval. Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul expressed as much, saying, “Trump doesn’t seem to understand what an alliance is.” He added that Trump “unnerves” the South Korean people and that no other American president has talked so casually in the past about going to war with North Korea.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a few days after Trump’s comments, in a nationally televised news conference told his nation: "The people worked together to rebuild the country from the Korean War, and we cannot lose everything again because of a war.” Trump’s national security adviser H. R. McMaster quelled the potential rift with the allied nation by speaking with his South Korean counterpart Park Soo-hyun in a lengthy phone conversation on August 11. South Korea’s government then promptly assured its people that the U.S. government would not do anything regarding North Korea that would catch South Koreans by surprise.
During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested South Korea and Japan may want to develop nuclear weapons to defend themselves and provide enough of a deterrent to nations like North Korea and China.
This solution to easing the burden on American troops and taxpayers for defending the U.S. and its allies shocked foreign policy experts. Echoing the opinions of millions of unempowered citizens, Trump specifically said during on the campaign: “At some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world.” He further clarified his foreign policy views in his speech on Afghanistan on August 21, saying: “We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward.”
Trump has likely not read Hans Morganthau, who promoted a view of international relations known as realism. Morgenthau and other such as historian E. H. Carr believed that nations are inherently self-interested and seek first protection and power for themselves and their people.
According to this view, governments should not shy away from this natural role and avoid ideological, moral, or religious crusades and interact with other nations only in ways that are mutually beneficial in order to avoid conflict. But, it does make sense, given Trump’s complete lack of universal idealism that he would adopt realism as his default foreign policy.
Trump’s desire for America’s allies to contribute more to their defense faces some legal hurdles in Japan. That nation’s post-World War II constitution constrains its defense spending to one percent of GDP. Nevertheless, President Shinzo Abe earlier this year, told the Japanese Parliament that he will not keep defense spending below one percent and opened the possibility of projecting Japanese power abroad if necessary to defend it from threats like North Korea.
On August 10, after North Korea threatened to launch an attack on Guam, Japan vowed to protect the American territory by shooting down any North Korean missiles with its Aegis destroyer missile defense system.
South Korea has a 650,000-man army, compared to North Korea’s 1.19 million. But, South Korea has nearly twice the population as North Korea, its life expectancy is ten years higher, and despite spending only 2.8 percent of its GDP, compared to North Korea’s 22.3 percent, on defense; it still outspends its communist neighbor three to one in total dollars spent on defense.
However, increased Japanese and South Korean military independence, coupled with Trump’s willingness to threaten North Korea with annihilation, did not dissuade Kim Jong Un from following through with his threat. His regime has been testing rockets for years and the showdown with Trump offered him the chance to show the world that Trump is all tweet.
All Kim had to do was fire a missile near Guam and show he could reach it if he wanted. Trump would not follow through on his threat to attack North Korea because he would not want to risk a war with China and the destruction of his ally South Korea over another missile that landed harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean.
It was China that effectively isolated North Korea on August 11, when it said that if the U.S. launched a preemptive strike, China would honor its 1961 mutual defense treaty; if however, North Korea preemptively struck Guam as it was threatening, Kim would be on his own.
This provided the final straw for Kim to reassess his position.
On August 15, he added a few blustery linesabout reserving the right to hit Guam in the future should his nation feel threatened, then practically said “just kidding Don” and backed off.
After a week of confrontation and international suspense, the Trump administration showed that it can show leadership abroad and keep the U.S. safe without unnecessarily antagonizing foreign powers or putting American servicemen at risk.
It accomplished this by maintaining the trust of the nation’s allies, promising to use the full force of the American military if necessary to defend the homeland, and pitting the nation’s adversaries against one another.