Foreign Policy

Schizophrenia on North Korea and Venezuela?

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They’re both cruel tyrants who have starved and neglected their populations, precipitating humanitarian crises of historic proportions. They both have engaged in consistent patterns of gross violations of internationally-recognized human rights.  They both rely on the loyalty of their militaries to remain in power.

Yet North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro have received very different treatment from the Trump administration.

{mosads}To the chagrin of many of his own advisors and senior officials, the president has extended an olive branch to North Korea, seeking to build an atmosphere of trust before seeking more tangible gains. The foreign policy establishment, including many leading Democrats, has demanded verifiable progress on denuclearization before rolling back the current policy of maximum pressure and sanctions. Only a few brave experts have conceded that tearing up the old, failed rule-book might be necessary to break the long stalemate. The fact that the second summit ended without agreement should be taken not as proof that diplomacy is hopeless, but as evidence that peace is a process requiring skillful preparation and sustained commitment.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the United States is pursuing a very different approach: threats, intimidation, and clandestine meetings with coup plotters. Amid life-threatening shortages of food and medicine, government officials use humanitarian aid as a political weapon for regime change. These are the types of tactics favored by national security advisor John Bolton, whose inclination is toward military domination and control rather than diplomacy and cooperation.

Who’s in charge here? President Trump, who campaigned on a promise of bringing troops home? Or John Bolton, who has consistently argued that only military action can accomplish what is required?

There is already ample evidence that regime change by force is not a viable or sustainable policy option. After nearly 18 years of war and occupation, the United States has been unable to establish stable, democratic governance in Afghanistan. Despite having the world’s most powerful military, the U.S. has been unable to bring about peace to Iraq or Syria. Our decades of increasingly punitive sanctions have not toppled the governments of Iran, Cuba or North Korea. But all these policies continue to exact a grave human toll.

The American people know this. As recent polling confirms, Americans of all political stripes are tired of endless war and the countless money these wars require. What will it take for our political leaders to heed their constituents’ wishes?

In Venezuela, as elsewhere, it’s not a choice between invading or doing nothing. The United States could back diplomatic efforts led by the International Contact Group, which is supporting new elections. We can assist the Uruguayan and Mexican governments, which have proposed a four-phase dialogue known as the Montevideo Mechanism. Instead of creating a border standoff with airlifted supplies, we could provide relief through international agencies that abide by long standing humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. Rather than building walls, we could provide refugee resettlement and asylum. 

The United States must be mindful that ultimatums can increase resistance to change, and that a large and growing percentage of people – including in friendly nations such as Germany, France, Mexico and Brazil – see American power and influence as a major threat to their countries.   

As President Trump seeks to draw down our military presence in Afghanistan and Syria, he ought to be wary of reckless behavior that could end up dragging us into yet another unwinnable conflict. The ratcheting up of threats against Venezuela – and, for that matter, Iran – do not make Americans more secure and do not improve the chances for a just and peaceful solution. 

In this year’s State of the Union Address, the president asserted, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” If he hopes to make that aspiration a reality, he must ensure the United States stops endlessly threatening war.

Diana Ohlbaum is the Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (

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