Imagine a 3-year-old sitting in a parked car. Think of all the things she can do! Flip the switches. Turn on the lights. Turn on the windshield wipers. Turn on the radio. Everything, in fact, except make the car take her somewhere. For that she needs gas in the tank and legs long enough to reach the accelerator, and has to know how to drive.
Now think about how President Donald Trump is running U.S. foreign policy. Think of all the things he can do! Make statements on Twitter. Issue fearsome threats from his golf resort. Serve chocolate cake to foreign leaders at Mar-a-Lago. Everything, in fact, except achieve tangible success. For that he needs real tools: planning, processes, diplomats and allies. Without those, nothing happens.
This metaphor isn’t mine. It comes from an acquaintance, a frustrated civil servant who has spent six months watching U.S. influence shrivel. But it works perfectly as an explanation of the events of the past few days. Trump is the toddler in the car; the rest of the administration – or at least some of them – are the adults struggling to keep U.S. diplomacy moving in the right direction, though nobody has all of the tools needed.
Before explaining, it’s worth repeating: There aren’t any simple military solutions to the problem of North Korea. All unilateral, first-strike plans have unacceptably large risks. Pyongyang’s missiles, buried beneath mountains or loaded onto mobile launchers, are not easy to find. Even if we could strike them, metropolitan Seoul, which contains about 25 million people, is well within range of a massive conventional reprisal. The city would be no less endangered by radioactive fallout, just in case someone was thinking of a surprise nuclear attack instead.
Deterrence – the same policy that worked against the Soviet Union for about 45 years – along with sanctions, diplomacy and a renewed human rights campaign directed at the North Koreans remains the only realistic option. But a human rights campaign requires a State Department that believes in human rights, and under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, this one doesn’t. Diplomacy requires diplomats, and with no ambassador to South Korea, no assistant secretaries of state for arms control or Asian affairs, this State Department doesn’t have those either.
Sanctions are working better, perhaps because the administration actually has appointed a U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley. Last week, the U.N. Security Council voted to impose new sanctions on North Korea, a decision that will raise pressure on the regime. But sanctions take a long time to have an effect and won’t work at all if the president’s speech and behavior shatter international unity.
For if it is to succeed, deterrence also requires the careful use of language. The messages sent to a paranoid absolute ruler such as Kim Jong Un need to be crystal clear: If you launch a nuclear missile that kills people, we will strike back with overwhelming force. If you carry out a launch that seems intended to provoke, we will strike back in a more measured way. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tried to send that message when he called on North Korea to “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” and to “stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Trump, by contrast, continues to speak as if he had no diplomats or generals, as if there were no political process, or even a thought process, behind his language. His declaration, in between rounds of golf, that any North Korean “threats” would be met with “fire and fury” was dangerously imprecise. What does he mean by “threats”? North Korea issues threats all the time and has been doing so for decades. What does he mean by “fire and fury”? Almost immediately, Tillerson, seeking to repair the damage, told Americans (but not South Koreans) that they should “sleep well at night” because he had no “concerns about this particular rhetoric,” meaning, it seems, the president’s particular rhetoric. The president then came back with a louder claim: In North Korea, “things will happen to them like they never thought possible.”
This hardly clears up the problem. In truth, the president has already surrendered his most important tool: the ability to be the final rung on the ladder of escalation. Threats should start at lower levels, build up to Cabinet level and finally come from the president only when the situation is truly dire and the words are meant to be deadly serious. Instead, we have a president whose angry words are easily dismissed, even by his own secretary of state.
Trump has now lied so many times about so many things, has exaggerated and pontificated so much, that even the North Koreans laugh his dire words off as “a load of nonsense.” He has no authority, so like the child in the parked car, he can’t make any of the normal threats stick. His words are just as likely to encourage the North Koreans as to discourage them – and more likely to increase the danger to the rest of us.
Anne Applebaum is a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post.