OPINION | Putin, Xi set to play heroes of North Korea crisis
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This week, it was reported that the intelligence community now assesses that the North Korean regime, led by Kim Jong Un (KJU), has achieved production of a miniaturized nuclear warhead — providing KJU with the capability to deliver such a warhead on one of his ballistic missile systems. 

This is clearly an important inflection point in the advancement of the North Korean nuclear program. As if on cue, shortly after reports of this intelligence assessment surfaced, President Trump issued a stark statement, warning Pyongyang not to make any more threats toward the United States or "face fire and fury like the world has never seen.” 

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Then, only hours later, the North Korean state-run news agency reported that the North Korean military was reviewing operational plans to strike Guam, a U.S. territory. Now, President Trump is saying his “fire and fury” statement “wasn’t tough enough.”

 

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a full fledged crisis on our hands — with nukes in the balance. But what’s noteworthy here is that, so far, everyone seems to be playing their expected role.

KJU is actively advancing his regime’s conventional and nuclear capability to strike the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and is directly threatening the United States with such capability. Check. Trump responds with an escalatory statement and then doubles down. Check. So, perhaps this is not a crisis, just a new normal.

Whatever the case, in one fell swoop, Trump’s “fire and fury” statement: established a redline, handed KJU an exploitable narrative to justify why he needs nukes and opened the door to further escalation and even miscalculation. 

There must be a foreign policy crisis management handbook somewhere that says never to do these three things — much less at the same time. 

But again, Trump’s approach is not surprising. Back in March, I highlighted Trump’s seemingly “escalate-to-de-esclate” approach to foreign policy in a column by The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin: “The apparent approach could reveal a doctrine of ‘escalate to de-escalate'…Trump may want to escalate in certain areas to force a negotiation where actors might not be interested or willing to negotiate otherwise.”

Perhaps Trump is escalating not only in an attempt to effectuate a de-escalatory negotiation with the Kim regime but also to send a message to China that if it doesn't take additional steps to pressure the North Korean regime, then it may well have a war on its border.

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Regulation: Trump adviser affirms plans to leave climate deal | FDA to study new cigarette warning labels | DOJ investigating Equifax stock sales Top US security official targeted in Cuba Embassy covert attacks: report Trump adviser tells foreign officials no change on Paris climate deal MORE confirmed the “escalate-to-de-escalate” nature of Trump’s “fire and fury” comment in a statement while his plane was refueling in Guam: “What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea ... I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has the unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself and its allies, and I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”

The emerging Trump administration approach toward North Korea is certainly fraught with risk. Many will argue over the costs and benefits of using this escalatory rhetoric with the KJU regime, but actually, what we must also focus on is how Trump’s “fire and fury” statement could provide an opportunity for others to undermine the United States’ standing and moral authority in the world. 

So, as Trump and KJU go tit-for-tat, it appears there may be an opening for another actor within this saga. Someone to swoop in and save the day (and the world, for that matter) from an escalating nuclear crisis. Who could it be? Cue a shirtless Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president has long claimed with malevolent intention the “perils of U.S. aggression.” He has consistently asserted this claim to diminish the United States’ standing on the world stage. Could it be that Putin, with President Xi Jinping of China in tow, will somehow intervene in this escalating crisis between Trump and KJU and de-escalate it? Will Putin once again tout that he saved the world from “U.S. aggression?”

Could it be that Trump’s escalatory language is actually providing Putin and Xi an opening to further the narrative that the United States is not a responsible actor world? My bet is that this opportunity is not lost on Putin and Xi, but there’s still many more facets to this crisis.

Another has to do with how the Trump administration’s approach toward North Korea situates it within the broader context of U.S. foreign policy choices and actions. So, with that, let me get this straight: At the same time the Trump administration is escalating its military rhetoric against North Korea armed with nukes, they are looking to de-escalate U.S. military engagement against the Taliban armed with AK-47s and improvised explosive devices?

But wait, there’s more. At the same time the Trump administration is facing a growing crisis with a country that actually has nuclear weapons (North Korea), they are actively looking for ways to undo the P5+1 nuclear deal with a country that has yet-to-achieve nuclear weapons (Iran)? 

The inconsistencies and disconnects here are vast, concerning and reflective of an administration, even with its great national security and foreign policy talent, that still lacks a coherent worldview and strategy for U.S. national security and foreign policy. 

We are undoubtedly at an inflection point with North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. This situation is as serious as it gets in the national security business.

But this crisis is already beginning to reveal a more fundamental question: Is the administration truly prepared, manned and equipped to deftly handle the many foreign policy crises brewing. Additionally, is the administration in its rhetoric and approach inadvertently doing more to help our adversaries and enemies — more than they could ever achieve on their own? 

The administration must quickly get to a place where they have a coherent worldview and strategy that integrates all elements of U.S. power; not only regionally, but across the globe. 

Until that happens, our interests will suffer because our adversaries will be able to exploit our strategic disconnects, and our enemies will stay many steps ahead of us.

Alex Gallo is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee where he wrote legislation and conducted oversight of U.S. defense policy in the Asia-Pacific region. He is a West Point graduate and combat veteran and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. His work has been published by The Washington Post, National Review, The Huffington Post, The Hill, and Foreign Affairs.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of the Hill.