Analysis & Opinions - USA Today

No Time for Trump to Hurtle Toward War with North Korea

| Aug. 10, 2017

The president has a long to-do list, starting with slowing down and changing his tone. He should emulate Churchill and Reagan, not Kim Jung Un.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons challenge is as serious a crisis an American president has faced since the end of the Cold War. That is why President Trump should tread carefully and wisely before hurtling us toward conflict in Asia.

Trump is right on the key threat. North Korea’s aim to develop a nuclear weapon that could hit the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada is unacceptable. We know enough about the criminal regime in Pyongyang to be clear about our own bottom line: We can’t allow it to blackmail our country for years to come.

Before the Trump administration decides to confront Pyongyang’s menacing young leader, Kim Jung Un, however, it should take time to deepen the U.S. strategic position on the Korean Peninsula for the struggle ahead.  

There is much Washington must now do. Trump should strengthen the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan to meet our defense commitments to both allies. He should continue to invest in missile defense systems to protect the U.S. homeland. He should enlist the political support of Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore and others, including our NATO allies, to isolate North Korea as the instigator and threat to peace. 

Most important, Trump must continue to make North Korea the focal point of our relationship with China. President Xi Jinping has significant influence on Kim through Beijing’s food and energy exports to Pyongyang, but he is reluctant to use it. Trump can make it crystal clear to Xi that U.S.-China relations will sink or swim on this key issue. As the world’s two strongest countries, we should coalesce to manage this threat together. Should China not help us, Trump could retaliate with a potent but risky option — the imposition of American secondary sanctions on Chinese and other companies that did business with North Korea. Beijing needs to understand that the North’s threat against the U.S. is, for us, existential. 

For such a complex strategy to work, Trump will need to slow down and think carefully with his senior advisers about how to carry it out successfully. War is not imminent. There is no reason for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. This is no time to hurtle toward a war that could quickly spin out of our control.  

There is a better and smarter path ahead. As we strengthen our military position, Trump should also commit to a diplomatic initiative to contain Kim's nuclear program. Here is where the president’s own behavior will be so important.    

Rather than mimicking Kim’s shrill and bombastic threats, Trump should adopt more the upright, tough and determined demeanor that Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan all exemplified at the most dangerous moments of World War II and the Cold War. There is a reason why all our nuclear-age presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have stopped short of threatening the use of nuclear weapons. We want to retain the moral high ground and rally the rest of the world against an international outlaw. And we want to make sure deterrence is clear and credible.

Diplomacy offers no guarantee, but it would be irresponsible not to try. Precipitous U.S. military action could trigger the most violent conflict since World War II with massive loss of civilian life. Such a struggle could even pit America against China, an unthinkable prospect. 

Diplomacy, backed by U.S. military strength, makes more sense. A Trump diplomatic campaign must thus find a way to unite South Korea, Japan, Russia and China to act together to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. This won’t be easy. But it would buy badly needed time for negotiations with Pyongyang. While our ultimate objective should be a Korean Peninsula free of Kim's nuclear weapons, that could take years to accomplish. No American official to my knowledge has ever met Kim Jung Un. It would be irresponsible in the extreme for a U.S. president to go to war without having first given diplomacy a real chance.

For such a plan to succeed, Trump should hand the reins to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His tough, experienced and nuanced constitution seems right for an incendiary problem like this. Trump should get off his Twitter account and let Tillerson engage in the kind of quiet, backroom diplomacy that might offer the best chance of a breakthrough.

Trump hasn’t made diplomacy a priority since taking office. He is threatening to cut the State Department budget by a third and has ignored the career Foreign Service, the jewel in the crown of American foreign policy. It is time for Trump to recognize he needs our diplomats as much as our soldiers to meet the North Korea threat effectively. He should quickly name experienced diplomats to fill the vacant positions of ambassador to South Korea and assistant secretary of State for East Asian Affairs.

The stakes are as high as they can be in this developing crisis. Trump might thus recall the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt, no shrinking violet himself, in facing down a brutal tyrant like Kim: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“No Time for Trump to Hurtle Toward War with North Korea.” USA Today, August 10, 2017.