U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was busy making empty threats and unrealistic demands in response to the North Korean missile test today:
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Wednesday urged all countries to completely sever economic and diplomatic ties with North Korea, and warned Pyongyang that the regime will be “utterly destroyed” if a standoff over missile tests leads to war.
No purpose is served by making this demand. The states that have the strongest ties with North Korea will be least likely to cooperate, so any punitive effect will be limited. Most of the states in question would resent being told that their foreign policy has to conform to U.S. preferences, and many would understandably refuse to imitate our dead-end approach of rejecting diplomatic engagement. Making such an excessive and unrealistic demand just shows how clueless and desperate the U.S. has become as it pursues the impossible goal of denuclearization. The administration’s response to the latest test shows that they remain wedded to a bankrupt approach that prioritizes isolation and punitive measures and leaves no opening for a negotiated compromise. If the most recent missile test doesn’t drive home how useless pressure tactics have been in changing North Korean behavior, I don’t know what would.
Haley also said that Trump had spoken to Chinese President Xi and told him that China needed to cut off oil supplies to North Korea. Haley added that if China didn’t do this, “we can take the oil situation into our own hands.” It’s not entirely clear what this would mean in practice, and it is probably nothing more than bluster, but the message is not going to be well-received in Beijing. Other governments don’t want to have their policies dictated to them by Washington, and that is especially true of other major powers.
Contra Haley, the missile test itself doesn’t bring the U.S. and North Korea “closer to war” unless the U.S. makes the horrible mistake of using missile tests as a pretext for starting one. Haley can claim that “we have never sought war with North Korea” all she likes, but it is difficult to take her seriously when she describes a missile test as an “act of aggression” that makes war more likely. That is the sort of rhetoric that government officials use when they are beginning to lay out a public case for attacking another country. This can only ratchet up tensions further and give the North Korean government another reason to fear that they may be attacked.
The Trump administration should be using its officials to reduce tensions, reassure allies, and convey a public image of calm confidence that the situation can be managed. Issuing a series of threats and demands that most other states are going to ignore and hinting at the possibility of that a disastrous war is a real possibility do none of these things. On the contrary, they signal to the entire world that the administration is trapped by its own bluster and bellicose rhetoric and has no idea how to move forward.