Trump's 'Principled Realism'
In his remarkably forceful and candid geostrategic address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump stated his administration’s intention to end North Korea’s nuclear program – or, if necessary, to end the regime. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Yet, for all his blunt warnings to Pyongyang, he was more circumspect in his references to the enabling roles played by China and Russia and thanked them for supporting the latest Security Council sanctions resolutions. He diplomatically avoided mentioning that the measures were weaker than what Washington had wanted—as they always are after Beijing and Moscow wield their veto power to water them down.
The president also gave the two Communist and former/neo-Communist powers an immense benefit of the doubt, and expressed a wish more than a fact, when he stated: “No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.”
The reality is that both China and Russia, as well as other countries that oppose America’s place in the world, have been perfectly content to watch Washington diverted diplomatically, distracted strategically, and its resources misallocated, by the growing North Korean threat.
As a critical player on North Korea, China has postured as a responsible international stakeholder by supposedly restraining the Kim regime from even more reckless behavior. Beijing’s pose as a good-faith negotiating partner has deflected Western criticism over China’s trade and currency misconduct, its aggressive actions in the South and East China Seas and toward Taiwan, and its own human rights record.
Overall, China’s strategic interests have been well-served by the West’s preoccupation with the North Korean nuclear problem. That fact was inadvertently illuminated during a conference this week at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Former Ambassador Christopher Hill, who spent years at the State Department negotiating with the North Koreans in the Six-Party Talks and probably knows their strategic thinking as well as any American, offered his view of Pyongyang’s “most likely” objective in pursuing its nuclear and missile programs:
North Korea believes that by pointing its nuclear missiles at the United States [during a conflict on the Korean Peninsula] it could make Washington blink ... and the entire U.S. alliance system around the world would then be up for grabs.
However, Pyongyang would not be alone in celebrating America’s geostrategic demise; it would be joined by its sponsors and protectors in Beijing and Moscow. Those ruling cliques, far from scorning a “band of criminals” in North Korea, see a band of brothers, prickly but serving a common interest in undermining the West.
The president chose not to call out China and Russia in the U.N. forum for their insidious double-dealing on the North Korea problem, beyond a general appeal for all nations to do “much more.” But, without naming and shaming Pyongyang’s principal enablers, his naked threat to destroy their ally and beneficiary showed them where their decades-long duplicity has led.
In that sense, the Trump doctrine emphasis on national self-interest—which China and Russia have been pursuing in helping North Korea—also reveals its limits when it impinges on others’ legitimate interests. Unbridled and untempered by international rules and norms, it inevitably leads to conflict.
It also invariably involves massive mistreatment of domestic populations. While the president rarely if ever uses the term human rights, he regularly cites the plight of oppressed people under the governments he denounces for external aggression and terrorism.
Since North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and others show little regard for the principles embodied in the president’s “principled realism,” his resort to a more realist enforcement will get their attention.
Joseph Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense, 2002-2010.