On the heels of a rapid succession of North Korean ballistic missile tests that demonstrated the increased range of Pyongyang’s arsenal, the Washington Post recently reported that the Defense Intelligence Agency estimates the Hermit Kingdom now possesses the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead. That means the Kim regime will soon be able to mate its nuclear warheads with long-range delivery vehicles. As tensions between the United States and North Korea have escalated throughout most of 2017, President Donald Trump offered this response from his vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey:
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen… he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.
Beyond the normal Trumpian bluster, these statements are problematic for a number of reasons.
As with many of Trump’s statements, his latest declaration seems to have been improvised. The fact that this one involves potential conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary ups the ante significantly. But the improvised statements have to be put in the context of the contradictory messaging emanating from his national security officials.
For example, CIA Director Mike Pompeo previously endorsed regime change—saying that the solution to the standoff with Pyongyang was to “separate” its current leadership from their nuclear program. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned the regime to stop taking actions that could lead to its own destruction, though he also acknowledged that any conflict would have “catastrophic” human consequences. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that regime change is not in the cards, but it is unclear what—if any—sway he has in the administration. Meanwhile, Sebastian Gorka—a Trump national security advisor with dubious credentials whose only job seems to be making pretentious statements on Fox News—warned North Korea not to threaten the United States because it is now a “hyperpower” (a vintage term popularized in 1998 by a French minister to describe America’s relative power position following the end of the Cold War). Later, Gorka publicly contradicted Tillerson’s statements—stating that it was “nonsensical” for the secretary of state to speak on “military matters.”
Got all that?
There are reasons why administrations coordinate their messaging. If the administration is trying to signal North Korea, which policy position should the Kim regime take? Moreover, statements about unleashing “fire and fury” or being “locked and loaded” lack specificity about what the consequences will be if the regime fails to change its behavior. Is the President of the United States threatening a nuclear strike? Is a conventional attack being considered? Vague and conflicting messages—no matter how bombastic—send mixed signals.
Of course statements from administration officials are not the only way to send signals. And as Max Fisher of the New York Times’ Interpreter blog noted, all this talk of “fire and fury” elides the lack of any changes to the U.S. military’s regional force posture. If Donald Trump was actually intent on unleashing fire and fury in response to Pyongyang’s provocations, military assets in the region would be preparing for conflict. And while a fair point, it demonstrates some of the other problems with the president’s statement.
For one, the U.S. military is already engaged in ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The administration is trying to determine whether to ramp up forces in Afghanistan, abandon the fight altogether, or turn it over to a mercenary army. The administration has also increased the military’s role in counterterrorism operations in places like Somalia and Yemen, while also playing more of a role in the latter’s ongoing civil war. The military is also trying to bolster its forces in Europe in light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. For all its impressive power, it will be hard pressed to fight a war against a weaker—but still formidable—adversary like North Korea.
But even if the United States was not involved in so many other conflicts, military action against North Korea’s nuclear program would be, to say the very least, ill-advised. Even if the Kim regime cannot threaten the continental United States with a nuclear strike yet, it can still impose unacceptable costs on both the U.S. military and its allies. The United States would inevitably prevail in any war with North Korea, but as journalist Mark Bowden of Black Hawk Down fame outlined recently in an essay for the Atlantic, any renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsula would result in hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of civilian deaths.
With military options too costly, diplomacy is necessary. Yet the State Department under Rex Tillerson is ill equipped to address such delicate matters. As Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies wrote of Tillerson in a recent column on Trump’s threat:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plaintive words about the United States not being North Korea’s enemy (August 1), or his reassurance that the military option has not drawn closer (August 9), do not count much, partly because he does not count much in American foreign policy these days, and partly because in this administration above all, only the president counts.
But the problems at the State Department go beyond Tillerson’s lack of influence with the president. As a number of outlets have reported, the department is increasingly dysfunctional. A large number of important positions remain unfilled. Among these are the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and the ambassador to South Korea. Even if the secretary of state had a meaningful relationship with the president, and even if that president had a clear policy toward North Korea, it is unclear how the State Department go about achieving the administration’s diplomatic goals.
State Department officials would also have to conduct such high stakes diplomacy knowing their mercurial boss has a tendency to change his mind often. As discussed here previously, Trump also has a tendency to bluster and then back down. Much is made—most of it wrongly—about the need to demonstrate “resolve” in international politics to maintain credibility. However, the examples of Donald Trump’s bluster-and-backtrack pattern are starting to pile up. On the one hand, as political scientist Daniel Drezner noted back in February, Trump’s unwillingness to follow through on his belligerent rhetoric could be a good thing if it means avoiding an unnecessary war. On the other hand, the enemy gets a vote. If Trump continues to bargain with North Korea by employing meaningless threats, the Kim regime has little reason to believe him when he issues a threat he actually intends to back up.
A number of comparisons have been made between the ongoing tensions with North Korea and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The situations have few, if any, actual similarities. However, the president’s bombastic improvisations, the mixed signals his administration is sending, the irrelevance of his secretary of state, the shambolic state of his State Department, and his tendency to back down after he blusters, are making an already bad situation much worse.
Matthew Fay is the Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Niskanen Center