Foreign Policy

On North Korea, the ‘Trump doctrine’ is flexibility at its finest


Vice President Mike Pence threw down the gauntlet on North Korea Monday morning, telling CNN “We’re going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience.” This shouldn’t be unexpected. Just the day before National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said to ABC News, “…all our options (are) on the table, undergoing refinement and further development.”

The McMaster statement and the Apr. 15, 2017 failed missile launch by Pyongyang are context for actions by President Trump to develop his foreign policy. Think of the decisive and rapid, yet considered not rushed, decision to punish Assad of Syria for his flagrant violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and cordial interactions with President of China, Xi Jinping. And Iran, a state fond of using intemperate language, joined Russia to denounce the U.S. strike on Syria, but Tehran acted with restraint.

{mosads}Trump made clear statements about Pyongyang without intemperate use of rhetoric or military threats, but they reveal he is prepared to use force as appropriate to protect U.S. interests in a measured way.


The days of “strategic patience” with Pyongyang and all or nothing responses are history; pundits who foresaw isolationism inherent in America First campaign rhetoric now see placing U.S. interests first does not mean withdrawal from the world behind physical and virtual walls, but a policy of strongly defending American interests, with force. 

“Peace through strength” is a phrase championed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign and repeated during his tenure. It also appears as a key pillar of Trump’s evolving doctrine. The decision to authorize cruise missile strikes against the Syrian airfield demonstrated willingness to employ U.S. military capabilities to protect American national interests, that is, enforcement of respect for international conventions to which the U.S. government is signatory.

Peter Navarro, formerly an advisor to the Trump campaign, heads a White House office overseeing American trade and industrial policy. He wrote on Mar. 21 2016, “Those who insist Donald Trump has no foreign policy are simply not listening. The ‘Trump Doctrine’ is a page right out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook: peace through economic and military strength.”

There are other shared policy elements.


What are the advantages and disadvantages of Trump’s unpredictability? Adversaries are unable to plan how to deter or defend against our strategy; allies are uncertain whether they enjoy required support.

Thomas Schelling in The Strategy of Conflict, pioneered the idea of “rationality of irrationality.” It suggests appearing “crazy like a fox,” acting seemingly irrational, “a madman theory” of negotiations, makes sense, per a Mar. 25, 2014 post in Foreign Policy. President Richard Nixon acted in ways that appeared irrational in the Vietnam War: Nixon instructed National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger what message to deliver to his counterparts in the Soviet Union:

“‘Henry, we must not miss this chance,’ the president said, ‘I’m going to destroy the goddamn country (North Vietnam), believe me, I mean destroy it, if necessary. And let me say, even (use) the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary,’ Nixon hastened to add, “but you know, what I mean is, that shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go.’”

Fast forward from Nixon in 1971 to Trump in 2017. The common element: Henry Kissinger, advisor to Trump how to persuade Beijing to get Pyongyang to refrain from another nuclear weapons test. Trump warned that Washington will take unilateral action to eliminate the nuclear threat to the United States from North Korea unless Beijing successfully increases pressure on the hermit kingdom. On Apr. 11, Trump issued a statement via Twitter, aimed directly at Pyongyang. “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”

It is one thing to use the madman approach when dealing with a state like China. It’s quite different and more difficult to do so with a rogue regime, such as North Korea. Normal states are amenable to strategic use of threats. But rogue regimes are less predictable: Threats meant to deter might give rise to unwanted preemptive actions.

Verbal warnings of President Trump against North Korea accompanied by a deployment of U.S. warships risk escalation via miscalculation. On Apr. 13, the Wall Street Journal posted a warning from Pyongyang’s state media that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) could use its national holiday on Saturday, Apr. 15, the birthday of the country’s founder, for a show of force. U.S. officials anticipated either a DPRK nuclear test, the country’s sixth, or another in a string of ballistic-missile tests. Neither the nuclear nor ballistic missile tests occurred. To commemorate the birthday of the nation’s founder, there was a huge parade of armaments that included what appeared to be several intercontinental ballistic missile canisters.

On Apr. 14, 2017, the New York Times ran a piece that Beijing worried about tensions on the Korean Peninsula spinning out of control. North Korea had said it might test another nuclear weapon at any time and a U.S. naval group neared the peninsula, possibly an American effort at strategic unpredictability by sowing doubt in Pyongyang over how Trump might respond.

“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering,” said China’s foreign minister.

The Way Forward

First, use of unpredictability, or a “madman approach” is inherently risky, particularly when dealing with rogue regimes like North Korea. While China responded to U.S. actions with careful comments, the DPRK threatened to unleash ballistic missiles against the United States and implied (with considered unpredictability perhaps?) something dramatic would occur on 15 April, yet only a failed missile launch and parade occurred. But even failed tests allow the DPRK to improve its missiles.

Second, pundits proclaim doctrines; presidents execute policies that reveal the contours of policy. Look at what a president says to discover the shape of policy. Thus far, Trump has shown when convinced of the necessity, he will use military force to protect U.S. national interests.

Third, implicit in the evolving Trump doctrine is the idea of delegation of responsibility to generals to plan and execute military missions. Likewise, Trump delegates to others (McMasters, Secretary Tillerson, Ambassador Haley, and CIA Director Pompeo) engagement with media and foreign policy community to explain decisions. In both, Trump sets overall missions, retains authority to approve a course of action, and remains the final word on national interests.

In sum, the final shape of the Trump doctrine of “all options are on the table,” will continue to develop through the end of his presidency. For now, certain lines have been set — be unafraid to use force, don’t reveal your intentions to opponents, listen to trusted advisors, make a decision and have talented subordinates execute.

These should be kept in mind when attempting to understand implications of America First.

Dr. Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Edward Stafford is a retired Foreign Service officer; he served in Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, as a diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and taught at the Inter-American Defense College.

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

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