The Trump Administration has spent much of its early days finding its footing on foreign policy. Despite a healthy dose of criticism, the young presidency has at least received some plaudits over its support of South Korea. After reports that North Korea would conduct another atomic test, the United States announced that it was sending the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, and its escorts to help deter North Korean aggression. Vice President Mike Pence declared that the era of ‘strategic patience’ was over, and pundits lauded President Trump for being decisive in support of a key U.S. ally.
Or perhaps not. It turns out that the Vinson was actually heading south towards Australia when its new mission was announced. While the port-call for the aircraft carrier in Australia was cancelled, and the ship and its escorts are now headed towards the Sea of Japan, the gaffe may have ramifications beyond just embarrassment for the administration.
The words of any U.S. president and his cabinet affect global events, and this was no different. South Korean and Japanese news reported the expected arrival of the Vinson as a sign that the crisis with North Korea was escalating—as did the American media. Both China and Russia dispatched naval intelligence-gathering ships to tail the aircraft carrier. There were concerns about war.
Now, with the news that it will take at least a week for the Vinson to get to the area, the crisis with North Korea appears less urgent. However, another crisis may be brewing—a crisis of Korean faith that the United States will show up if needed. South Korea is officially withholding judgement on the mix-up, but one of its presidential candidates stated that, “What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”
While the U.S. Navy was quick to get the Vinson back on track, the incident may still inject a measure of uncertainty into the relationship between Washington and Seoul. Countries that want to see that relationship strained are speaking up too, with China’s Global Times taunting, “Tricked badly! None of the U.S. aircraft carriers that South Korea is desperately waiting for has come!” on its social media.
To top it off, the Administration has come out of the incident looking disorganized at best. Comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the carrier was “on her way up there,” now seem disconnected with the operations of the ship. In discussing the movements of the ship, Mattis said that exercises with the Australians had to be cancelled to send the carrier north. Admiral Harris, the Combatant Commander for Pacific Command, had to later clarify that a port-call, not the exercises, were cancelled. These misstatements and clarifications simply overlay a perceived lack of seriousness on the part of the administration.
America’s relationship with South Korea will not fall apart because of this miscommunication. However, the tension it has raised should serve as a warning. The movement of aircraft carriers are rightly perceived as a muscular response to a crisis, and discrepancies between stated movements and real operations will raise questions about America’s commitment. Making sure that the White House, the Department of Defense, and the services are on the same page is critical. Failure to do so leads not to situations in which the United States seems dangerously unpredictable—a trait the President admires—but rather to perceived incompetence.
If incidents like this become common occurrences, the United States will erode its own deterrence capability. Bold words have dramatic effects if one is the president of the United States. This time, the end result was no war with North Korea, which is good. But in the future, if a rogue state or rival power believes that the United States is simply posturing its response, a war may be harder to deter.