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How Donald Trump Just Ended the Cold War for Good

On Monday night, with a televised handshake and a few kind words, the Korean War was effectively ended, almost exactly 68 years after it began. As President Trump said in Singapore, “We will have a terrific relationship ahead.”  

For his part, North Korean leader Kim said that while “obstacles” had been in the way of the meeting, “we overcame all of them and we are here today.”  And while Tuesday’s joint statement [1] on de-nuclearization can be regarded as tentative, even vaporous, the two leaders also agreed to work toward establishing diplomatic relations. In addition, Trump has stated his desire to remove U.S. troops from South Korea [2] eventually; these moves all amount to a massive global game-change.

Indeed, the contrast between the warmth in Singapore to the chill at the recent G-7 meeting in Quebec is startling; it truly seems that an old era is finally ending and a new era, for better or worse, is beginning.

So it’s almost poetically fitting that the focus is on Korea. Looking back, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the Korean War on the history of the last seven decades; that conflict was the decisive inflection point in the onset of the Cold War. It solidified much of the geopolitical architecture of the Cold War, notably the fundamental idea of a U.S.-led Free World alliance to contain communism. And if there aren’t many communists around today, well, that’s a clue as to the current dilemma of the once strong, now-faltering, anti-communist alliance.

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To gain better perspective, we might pause over some of that early Cold War history. As we know, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been allies in the defeat of Nazi Germany and also, at the tail end of World War Two, Japan. And so after 1945, there was considerable hope, at least on the U.S. side, that the great powers of the world, operating as “policemen” on behalf of the new United Nations [3], would cooperate to uphold world security.

In light of Stalin’s true intentions, such hopes must now be remembered as dangerously naive. Yet it was a naivety that died hard. Yes, as an early indicator of mistrust, the U.S. granted aid to anti-communist governments in Greece and Turkey in 1947. And yes, the U.S. undertook the Berlin airlift in 1948. And yes, NATO was created in 1949, although in its inception, it was mostly a political, as opposed to military, alliance. And the huge Marshall Plan was portrayed as entirely humanitarian economic foreign aid. In other words, in the late 40s, hope for post-war harmony still abounded. That’s why, even after the big post-WW2 demobilization of 1945-6, we continued, for the rest of the decade, to shrink defense spending; during the fiscal years 1947 to 1950, the U.S. defense budget shrank by yet another 40 percent [4].

It was the Korean War that shocked the U.S. out of its complacent military torpor. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Within days, President Truman ordered help rushed to the South, only to discover that our armed forces, which had defeated the Axis just five years earlier, were pitifully unfit to fight even the North Koreans; it was obvious to the world that Uncle Sam was in a saggy defense posture. America recovered soon enough, and yet then Red China joined the fighting, and it soon became obvious that Soviet forces, too, were deeply involved [5]. In other words, we really were in a war, not just with North Korea, but with the international communist conspiracy.

Thus the last wisps of illusion about the Soviets, and the Reds overall, faded away. Truman fired his incumbent defense secretary, Louis Johnson, bringing a revered hero of an earlier hot war, George C. Marshall, back from retirement to run the Pentagon. Unsurprisingly, the defense budget zoomed, increasing by ten-fold, to nearly 15 percent of GDP. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson [6] said at the time, “The profound lesson of Korea is that, contrary to every action preceding, the USSR took a step which risked—however remotely—general war.”  And so the U.S. muscled up everywhere; we sent more troops, for instance, to fortify NATO.

Over the three years of the Korean War, 33,686 Americans were killed in combat, as well as millions of Koreans and nearly a million Chinese “volunteers.”  And since it was merely an armistice that was signed on July 27, 1953, the technical state of war continued. (In fact, there was plenty of violence in the decades thereafter, as the North Koreans went about murdering GI’s in the DMZ [7], shooting down a reconnaissance airplane [8], even capturing a U.S. Navy ship on the high seas [9]. And, of course, as recently as last year, the U.S. and North Korea were trading the direst possible threats [10].)

So we can see: For the entire existence of most people living today, Korean tensions have been a running sore of stubborn hostility. And that hostility helped perpetuate the Cold War arrangements of NATO, and later, the G-7, and all the other American-sponsored geopolitical mechanisms of the Cold War. These included, we might note, the idea that the U.S. should keep open, on a non-reciprocal basis, its domestic market for imports from Europe, Japan, and, yes, South Korea; such one-sided trade relationships were seen as a necessary component of the alliance-building process.

Interestingly, all of this structure survived the collapse of the Soviet Union; in the 90s, many argued that it was time for a military drawdown and an economic rethink. Yet in fact, the opposite happened; in the wake of the Soviet collapse—which was, of course, the ultimate proof of the wisdom of the Trumanesque policy architecture—the West doubled down on more of the same, despite the fact that everything in the world had changed. NATO actually expanded, as did trade with countries such as China, by now a capitalist country with communist characteristics.

So now, in 2018, we come to a huge hinge question: What happens to the Cold War order when Korean hostility—the last vestige of the Cold War—goes away?   To be sure, there’s no guarantee that the Trump-Kim entente will last, and yet still, if hostilities were ever to break out again, it’s likely that any such conflict would be seen as a second Korean War.

Yet in the meantime, in this moment of amicability, the U.S. is still dealing with, and paying for, the relics of the Cold War. And most foreign-policy mandarins, here and around the world, see those relics as still vital.

Yet, as we are seeing on worldwide TV, the President of the United States disagrees. He seems more comfortable dealing with the leader of North Korea than with the leaders of, say, Canada and Germany. To put it mildly, this shift is causing great consternation in the establishment; in the words of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker [11], “It just seems like the President loves infuriating our friends and and befriending folks who have been our sort of natural opposition.”  (And of course, some well-placed observers [12] are willing to put their criticism in even starker terms.)

It’s worth recalling that Trump has been consistent in his opposition to the Cold War order for decades; since the 1980s [13], he has argued that our allies are playing us for suckers. That is, they are taking our money for their defense, and then taking more of our money as a result of lopsided trade relationships. Of course, all these assertions are fiercely debated and disputed, and yet it’s simply a fact, for example, that the U.S. spends multiples more on defense, as a percentage of GDP [14], than other NATO members. And it’s a fact, too, that the U.S. runs a trade deficit [15] with the European Union of about $100 billion.

Thus in this time of populist ferment, the defenders of the status quo are thrown on the defensive. Establishmentarians must explain why the U.S. should always subsidize and protect countries and peoples on the many far pavilions, from South Korea to Estonia to Syria. We have known for three decades now that we’re not defending, any more, against communist ideology; instead, it sometimes appears that we are merely fostering a disastrous worldwide technology transfer to China.

So if we step back, we can see the ahistoricality of what we’re doing. Even the advocates of the status quo system have to admit that in the context of traditional statecraft, it’s simply not normal that one country should do all this defending, and oftentimes pay for the privilege of doing it. Thus the pressing question: With just four percent of the world’s population and barely more than a fifth of the world’s GDP, can the U.S. really afford to defend, seemingly, everyone against everybody?  Indeed, in a world of drones, cyber-attacks, and migration-based terrorism, it’s not even clear that we know how to defend ourselves, let alone the rest of the world.

To be sure, many will argue that even if it’s not normal, and increasingly unworkable, that we bear these burdens, it’s still desirable, as part of a quest to build a newer world order. Thus the political battle is joined: Trump the nationalist, plus his Bannonite allies around the world vs. the received—some would say, congealed—wisdom of the internationalists.

So now we might ask: Does Trump have any sort of road map in mind?  What is his vision? It would seem that he envisions a more autonomous—or perhaps, autarkic—U.S., protected against too many imports and too many immigrants. If we have our own sovereignty, our own internal market, and our own energy, then, Trump seems to think, the main thing is to keep it all intact, and not go the way of Western Europe.

In fact, it’s possible to espy at least the first glimmers of an articulated Trump Doctrine. As a further poetic coda to the final passing of the Cold War era, just on Monday an article appeared in The Atlantic, under the byline of Jeffrey Goldberg [16], a well-known foreign policy mandarin. Goldberg quoted one “senior official” in the White House saying that yes, indeed, there is a new line emerging: “The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”  And for good measure, and a second “senior official” told Goldberg the same thing, using virtually the same language.

Not surprisingly, Goldberg is unimpressed, even horrified by these pronouncements; he scorns the phraseology as “delusional,” decrying “the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence,” adding that it is “self-isolating and self-sabotaging.”  

Of course, such harsh words sum up the establishment’s longstanding take on Trump himself, to say nothing of any new doctrine. And yet in the wake of these latest words, it’s a cinch that the white-hot heat of the foreign-policy debate will grow even hotter, up to the limits of what’s physically possible, as Trump critics take turns pounding on the unnamed aides (who will likely be named soon enough). In the meantime, Trump supporters will be scramble to express America First ideas using more conventional locutions.

The stakes are, after all, high; the basic geopolitical foundations of the last seven decades are being challenged and shifted—or, as critics would prefer to say, being subverted and betrayed.

Yet in the meantime, even as his myriad foes prepare their next political, legal, and punditical attacks, Trump is the man astride the world stage, smiling, shaking hands, signing deals—and unmistakably remaking the old order.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

57 Comments (Open | Close)

57 Comments To "How Donald Trump Just Ended the Cold War for Good"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On June 15, 2018 @ 12:13 am

WEll, it is too early to call it an end.

New cyber attack by North Korea

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#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 15, 2018 @ 8:15 am

” The most recent attempt is different only in it’s stunning resemblance to the efforts of that great statesman Neville Chamberlain.”

First, none of this is about the moral weaknesses of either president. This is not about either Pres Kim’s moral aptitude or the brutality with which leaders of north Korea supposed operates. Nor is it about the moral weaknesses of our president. Frankly, if either man lived next door to me, I would be as paranoid as ever of low brow tactics and other rather low moral mechanisms of attack if any disagreement a occurred. These are not men I would go to to seek moral counsel or trust their own.
This issue is soley about the security and expense of the US, secondarily are the concerns of S. korea. At this stage it takes far more ethical courage by President kim jung un to trust the world of any US leader based one the historical record and that includes the record of president trump. A man who views the morality of others it seems through his own lens – not a promising thought. I am not convinced that the entire facade of war mongering rhetoric wasn’t more theater than reality.

Excuse me, PM Chamberlain had little chose but to choose peace, Great Britain was not prepared for war. trying yo make the comparison that Pres Trump in any manner exists in a bubble that is WWII Great Britain, France and company faced is has no legs. north korea has neither intimidated the region by marching beyond his borders in an attempt make claims to territory in greater asia. There is no indication he has engaged in massive removal of certain types of people based on their religious beliefs. In fact, he has not even demanded that North Korea and South Korea reunite. Both he and his father have on multiple occasion entertained and engaged in communication with South Korea to open one another’s borders for more than twenty years. 1930’s Hitler, Pres kim jun Un is not.
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I think has more regional substance than global cold war. That does not diminish it value. But it does put the relevance in perspective. I don’t think N. Korea was a threat to the US, unless the US decided to invade.

Given that the cold war ended with russian retraction and its reformation to a more democratic system long before current events, I would have to reject the notion. We have not come full circle today any more than we came full circle by ending our isolation of Cuba, which hasn’t quite ended. After the events in Georgia and the the Ukraine, our new cold war status is very much alive, despite the wrinkles. I suspect if not for the pandering for a peace prize, the events of note would have had far greater impact. But that entire rhetoric confirmed some unpleasant suspicions of my own.

The levels at which people in leadership are willing to go to press their advantage are shameless. People have attempted to paint this executive into some manner of nasty light, but that nastiness was revealed long ago, And while I was hoping that this president would have curtailed some of the characteristics seen in during the campaign but he remains wedded to personal attacks.

But an end to the cold war — while fostering new ones and the re-emergence of two states china and russia on the world stage suggests we had better have more cold war astuteness than we had during the cold war. because military engagements with either or both states remains as potentially catastrophic as ever. The cold war in many respects has just shifted planes of existence, not disappeared.

But nothing diminishes the value of this step with North Korea. The president’s of all three countries deserve a applause for changing the nature of their mutual relationship.

As painful as our disagreements may be or — I stand by my vote for this president

#3 Comment By Egypt Steve On June 15, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

Paradoctor gets it right. Trump has surrendered. I don’t actually mind, because I think that relying on our invincible nuclear deterrent is the proper way to deal with NK nukes. Trump has tacitly admitted that.

But politically, he and his supporters shouldn’t be allowed to get away with pretending he’s done anything other than cut and run. And he and they must explain anew their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. If Trump were honest, he would admit that it is connected to a strong domestic constituency that exists only to resist sanity in Middle East policy, and the lack of such a constituency for continued lunacy in East Asia.

#4 Comment By Frank Blangeard On June 16, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

An agreement with the United States isn’t worth a penny. The U.S. can back out of an agreement on a whim. As soon as Kim has gotten rid of his nukes he will follow the path of Gaddafi and Saddam.

#5 Comment By Tom Larkin On June 19, 2018 @ 1:28 am

First, a good article worth reading. Second, regarding North Korea, President Trump guaranteed Leader Kim SECURITY. Leader Kim has substantial internal problems in North Korea. Leader Kim has no real practical use for nuclear weapons. Both Leader Kim and President Trump benefit from the “complete denuclearization” of North Korea. President Trump will maintain SANCTIONS until EFFECTIVE COMPLETE DENUCLEARIZATION. HENCE, I believe effective complete denucearization will occur RAPIDLY, i.e., within two years. Third, regarding our relationships with our allies, our allies have taken advantage of the United States for decades, both with unfair trade resulting in substantial trade deficits with ALL of our major allies and with our allies failure to live up to their responsibilities regarding defense expenditures. For example, Germany has a huge trade surplus with the the United States regarding automobiles, yet has a higher tariff on American cars by a factor of four not counting the 17% VAT. In addition Germany not only under-spends on defense (less than two percent of GDP although Germany could afford to spend more) but also acts against American interests when it does spend money on defense. For example, instead of buying the F-35, Germany intends to reinvent the wheel to keep that spending internal. The United States must redo trade agreements. (I believe that the United States would be more effective renegotiating those agreements if it put a general tariff on all goods and services of one specific country at a time.) No country can afford a trade war with the United States because those countries have large trade surpluses with the United States. Fourth, this new world order (Agenda 22 of the United Nations) is NONSENSE. The new world order relies on all cultures and countries being the same and that is simply not true. My favorite example is Bank of America. Bank of America began in California during the Gold Rush days as Bank of Italy because Italians had a 35% savings rate. The United States is exceptional and works best as a “melting pot” that takes the best from each culture while training those cultures to take the best from other cultures. Finally, a note on the photograph: W.E.B. Griffin at the end of Retreat Hell! wrote that General Almond received a note from Chesty Puller on Puller’s retirement calling General Almond the “finest combat commander” that Puller had the privilege to serve under.

#6 Comment By Terry K Prescott On June 19, 2018 @ 6:53 am

Wow, are you naive.

#7 Comment By Ed On June 19, 2018 @ 7:25 am

Stopping nuclear, and missile testing plus ending the Korean conflict is a big step forward. This in exchange for stopping military exercises is a bargain. These things can be easily verified and the policy can be quickly reversed. Intense sanctions and pressure on China brought Kim to the table– I wonder why nobody ever thought of that approach.