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North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Dysfunction

Tillerson’s attempts to reassure [1] Americans following Trump’s incendiary rhetoric [2] on North Korea do not seem very reassuring:

“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Mr. Tillerson said as his plane stopped to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target. He added, “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

It is understandable that Tillerson wants to back away from the alarming rhetoric that the president used earlier this week, but this points to the key problem with the rhetoric and reminds us of the slapdash, dysfunctional way that this administration conducts its foreign policy. If Americans should “have no concerns about this particular rhetoric,” neither should North Korea, and so Trump’s threat was meaningless bluster that should never have been uttered in public. The U.S. shouldn’t make threats that it isn’t prepared to carry out, but threatening to attack North Korea is a deranged thing to do in any case, so there is no excuse for what Trump did. The trouble here isn’t just that Trump made an irresponsible and dangerous threat that he would have to be out of his mind to follow through on, but he still doesn’t grasp [3] why he shouldn’t have done it:

For his part, Mr. Trump seemed pleased with the uproar caused by his remarks, and was in good spirits on Wednesday.


Unfortunately, Tillerson’s reassurances con’t carry as much weight when we know that the president didn’t coordinate this statement with anyone else [4], and none of his national security officials expected him to say anything like this. We have seen how Tillerson and Trump repeatedly contradict one another on various issues, so it is never clear when we should take Tillerson’s statements as a reliable guide to what U.S. policy is at any given moment.

When foreign governments already doubt Tillerson speaks for the president, it hardly helps when he has to minimize or dismiss the content of what the president says because the president’s statements are so irresponsible and inflammatory. Tillerson reinterpreted [5] Trump’s obvious threat of attack to mean that “the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself . . . and its allies,” but in order to believe that you have to ignore everything Trump said, and that is what Tillerson is asking us to do.

This is part of a worrisome pattern with how U.S. foreign policy is run now: administration officials aren’t kept in the loop, the president doesn’t consult with them ahead of time, and he throws rhetorical bombs that then force them to clean up the mess that he creates. Maybe it will be a random insult directed at an ally, maybe it will be a reckless threat against an adversary, or maybe it will be an unnecessary intervention in a foreign crisis. None of these is desirable, but the bigger problem is that Trump is making it all up on his own off the cuff without any advance warning to the rest of the government or preparation for the likely consequences. That would be bad enough if Trump actually knew something about any of the things he is talking about, but his impulsiveness is matched only by his remarkable lack of understanding of the foreign policy issues in question.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Dysfunction"

#1 Comment By Chris Chuba On August 10, 2017 @ 8:40 am

I don’t think that Kim Jong-Un was indicating a first strike on Guam, rather he is claiming that he can retaliate with a nuclear attack that includes Guam along with Japan and S. Korea. This is one serious game of chicken.

I have such little confidence in our Foreign Policy Establishment that I am certain they will miss any reasonable opportunity for compromise and if they do act it will be at the worst possible moment.

#2 Comment By KingP On August 10, 2017 @ 9:12 am

This situation, among others, is making it abundantly clear what you can expect when you elect or appoint those boasting “outsider” status. Apparently “outsider” can also imply uninformed, arrogant, lacking in social skills, panicky and generally unpleasant.

It seems some folks are remain “outside” for a reason.

#3 Comment By Viriato On August 10, 2017 @ 10:15 am

President Trump makes a lot of controversial comments. It’s part of his style. If Ted Turner is the Mouth of the South, Donald Trump is the Mouth of Manhattan.

That is fine as far as it goes. But there are some matters that cannot be discussed cavalierly under any circumstances, as the stakes are simply too high. Nuclear weapons/nuclear war is one of those matters, especially since the rise of MAD (mutually assured destruction) in the 1960s.

#4 Comment By ML On August 10, 2017 @ 11:06 am

On the positive side, it seems to me that the laws of economics apply to Trump’s remarks. Just as a radical increase in the money supply makes money worthless, the current increase in the supply of reckless Trump remarks will eventually reduce the value of those remarks, causing Trump’s statements to become more and more worthless and to be discounted by ally and enemy alike.

#5 Comment By Russ B On August 10, 2017 @ 11:35 am

A pattern has definitely been established:

Trump Off the Cuff: Blah blah blah blah blah … the greatest … blah blah

Administration Cleaning Crew: The president didn’t really mean what you think you heard him say …

#6 Comment By J Kielting On August 10, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

I’m not sure it’s that bad, because leaders around the world have to come regard Trump as someone who just impulsively says things – so they don’t take him too literally. If North Korea believed it could get an advantage by a first strike, they’d already have taken it. If they don’t think so, they’re not going to strike just because Trump is shooting his mouth. Trump’s big mouth just puts them in a position where they have to continue missile tests to spite Trump even if they have no immediate operational need for more tests.
Anyways, there’s a lot of bluster coming out of North Korea too, and people don’t regard that too seriously either.

#7 Comment By Adriana I Pena On August 10, 2017 @ 6:08 pm

To give an idea of the kind of thinking running the country


Anyone out there who still thinks that Hillary would have been worse?

#8 Comment By Sean mcauliffe On August 10, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

I am so angry at the idiots who elected this man baby.
Even if you hated hillary and thought she was totally corrupt, can you honestly say you’d still rather have trump? Remember we are only 15% into trump’s “presidency” and it likely gets worse from here. Yeah, I know, gorsuch, but still this is getting very scary and may lead to a real catastrophe as trump is not jfk

#9 Comment By Adriana I Pena On August 10, 2017 @ 9:09 pm

Former Senator Gordon Humphrey wants Trump out as soon as possible for the safety of our nation


#10 Comment By Victory over Eurasia On August 11, 2017 @ 7:10 am

Trump’s gift to the world will, I suppose, be massive nuclear proliferation. S. Korea is now discussing building their own bombs, and can Japan be far behind? It is hard to overstate the damage this man-child, and especially his enablers, are doing to the peace and security of the world. Ryan, McConnell, and their band of fools and weaklings will be condemned by history.

Any idea that people will stop taking him seriously is ridiculous. That may work in DC, but in the rest of the world his is still the US president, and for societies where the media is more tightly controlled (Saudi, China, NK etc etc) his every utterance damages and diminishes the US

I have lived in the US now for more than 30 years, and have long believed that the arc of history bends to progress. But now, the enablement of the foolish and the ignorant, and the feebleness of our institutions, makes me really doubt this…..

#11 Comment By The Dean On August 11, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

North Korea to me always seemed to be a chess piece for China, a perfect buffer zone to keep the Americans in check. Now their L’enfant terrible has pushed the envelope too far and they are not completely comfortable with this 33 year old flexing his muscles against their biggest trading partner.

China’s vassal state is ruled by a spoiled little man that is out of control. Only China can intervene and stop what will be a disaster to South Korea, Japan, and other countries in the area. China will probably use this escalation to their advantage in any negotiations to secure the South China Sea and their artificial islands in exchange for any type of robust North Korean countermeasure.

The United States made the mistake of threatening various counties under the Bush Administration by clumping North Korea, Iran and Iraq in one basket. Essentially telling these countries they are in our crosshairs for regime change and that they are an existential threat. Any country, especially after what we did in Iraq, will seek the atomic bomb as a deterrent against a much stronger and threatening foe.

Hopefully China will make the decision that a nuclear Japan, South Korea, Philippians, etc. are not in their best interests and make some tough decisions or someone in the North Korean hierarchy will overthrow Mr. Kim Jong Un.

#12 Comment By rayray On August 11, 2017 @ 8:02 pm

@The Dean
That seems a canny analysis. I have no doubt that, as genuinely frustrated as China is with NK, they are also looking at the situation for an advantage.

It ultimately is all in China’s hands, and pretending we can do something about it just gives them a stronger hand. One can only hope that the Orange One does not accidentally think that he could really “do something”.

But this is the kind of state department subtlety that is lost on Trump and apparently being slash and burned out of the state department itself.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 13, 2017 @ 4:58 pm

“I am so angry at the idiots who elected this man baby.
Even if you hated hillary and thought she was totally corrupt, can you honestly say you’d still rather have trump?”

I stand by my vote for Pres Trump. Whatever our disagreements, nothing heretofore is cause for me to abandon that position. Especially against those engaged in advocating for careless regime change.

And there has been little in the way of childish behavior that can match the hypebolic information parlayed as news for more than a year by his opponents on either side of the political aisle.