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Lessons from Trump’s war of words with Kim Jong Un.

 August 21 “…… some of the most basic tenets of international nuclear signaling were scorched by President Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” toward North Korea. Here are five lessons from his war of words with Kim Jong Un.

1. Trump ignored nuclear policy and strategy

In his “fire and fury” comments, Trump gave a warning to North Korea that had no historical precedent and was a consummate “commitment trap”: a scenario in which a leader stakes his credibility on a promise that leaves him with two bad options. He seemingly threatened a first nuclear strike as the response to any threats from Pyongyang.

From a policy perspective, this was stunning. Even at the height of the Cold War, U.S. leaders did not threaten nuclear use in response to mere threats. From a strategy perspective, Trump’s construct was foolish. It left him with the unhappy choice between backing down when North Korea next provoked or following through and launching a catastrophic conflict.

2. The Trump administration does not have a unitary nuclear declaratory policy

Trump’s secretaries of state and defense attempted to reshape his statements, but the president simply doubled down with another apocalyptic tirade. Four days later, Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis again offered sound policy in print, but this cycle of presidential bombast and Cabinet mollification carves a credibility chasm……..

3. Trump wasn’t just talking to allies and adversaries

We often think of American nuclear signaling as directed toward two primary audiences: the adversary the United States seeks to deter and the allies it seeks to assure. But Trump’s nuclear bombast may have had two other audiences that ranked ahead of these.

The first audience was Trump’s domestic base, his hardcore supporters. …….The second audience was China, which Trump has long believed would “fix” the North Korea problem for the United States…….

4. Trump played the mad man, while North Korea and China played it cool

One might argue that Trump’s nuclear threats were his version of a “madman” strategy — he cowed his adversaries into submission with punishing words, even though there was little chance he would really act as he says. In response, we would generally expect an adversary to either escalate in brinkmanship or back down.

North Korea and China did neither…….

5. There may be lasting damage to U.S. alliances in Asia

Trump has not disguised his disdain for America’s alliances and has previously rattled Seoul by maligning important trade and missile defense deals. With his nuclear threats, however, he has done more serious damage to the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

The South Korean public’s confidence in the United States has plummeted under Trump. …….

A week on the rhetorical brink leads to a final, startling question: When the United States declares its nuclear intentions, who should be believed? The president or his defense team? Allies, adversaries and Trump’s domestic audience have no easy task as they strain to hear the signal in the fire and fury.

Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

August 23, 2017 - Posted by | politics international, USA

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