BY ANDREW WOOLER
Regardless of one’s opinion on President Donald Trump, it is a fact that he entered the presidency with no prior government experience. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that his administration is heavily shaped by the individuals who advise him on political affairs. It is possible that this is mitigated in areas that Trump has experience in, such as business and tax policy. Yet, when it comes to matters of foreign policy, advisors are certainly crucial. Trump has no prior knowledge in the field, and America’s international involvements are highly complex. Of course, no advisor can make a major decision for the President. However, if the President is unfamiliar with a subject, an advisor that supplies information and formulates the President’s options is the one who really holds the cards.
In this light, Trump’s recent personnel changes could prove to be a turning point in his administration’s foreign policy. On March 13, Trump announced via Twitter that he was replacing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump followed this up on March 22 by bringing in John Bolton to take over from National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Bolton formerly served as U.N. Ambassador under the George W. Bush administration. Those unfamiliar with Bolton should not be deceived by his previous possession of such a diplomatic title as ‘ambassador.’ Bolton is notoriously a war hawk, and still defends the decision to invade Iraq. He has advocated for forced regime change in Iran, Syria, Libya, and North Korea. Pompeo takes likewise hawkish positions. Pompeo shares Bolton’s hardline views on North Korea and Iran, has defended the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, and supports American use of methods of torture.
The men who preceded Bolton and Pompeo in this administration were far from ideal for their positions. Yet, both Tillerson and McMaster seemed to grasp the restraint necessary to direct the world’s preeminent power in its foreign affairs. They gained a reputation among a cohort of advisors that acted to prevent impulsive misuses of American strength. This group, which included Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, was often dubbed by the media as the ‘adults in the room.’ Trump’s new appointees are unlikely to provide similar moderation, but instead will precipitate aggressive and impetuous methods of thinking. When Mattis first met Bolton in the Pentagon, Mattis joked that he had heard the new National Security Advisor was, “…the devil incarnate.” The two men have already come into conflict over the size and scope of military strikes in Syria. The Wall Street Journal’s sources believe Mattis will not always win out in debates and Bolton only bowed to Mattis’ restraint because it was his first week on the job. Additionally, Pompeo specifically is believed to have gained favor with Trump through encouraging the President’s instincts rather than offering considerations. This tactic has been so blatant that in Pompeo’s confirmation hearing on April 12, concern from the public prompted Senator Bob Menendez to ask Pompeo whether he would simply be a ‘yes man’ for the President.
The presence of Bolton and Pompeo will have ramifications for varying issues. For example, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal now seems far more likely. However, their impact will be most important on what has, so far, been the defining foreign policy problem of the Trump administration: its confrontation with North Korea. A mere three weeks before Trump announced his new role, Bolton penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal presenting his case for a military first strike on North Korea. Bolton quoted Daniel Webster in arguing that a strike was so necessary that it left, “…no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” In his argument, Bolton lacks justification that the North Korean threat is ‘imminent.’ There is no rational cause for North Korea to make use of its nuclear weapons. They face the same incentives of mutually assured destruction that constrain all nuclear powers. It is true that Kim’s possession of nuclear weapons grants security to an evil dictator, and that proliferation increases the risk of conflict. However, it is still a question of costs versus benefits. There is no apparent method of militarily striking North Korea that does not result in the loss of millions of lives. That is far too high a cost. The world has not witnessed atrocities on such a scale since World War II, and it should not be made to endure them again. Yet, Bolton is now in a powerful enough position to lead the world down that very path.
Bolton’s appointment at this particular time is bizarre when the North Korea situation is viewed in its whole. Recent months have led to a de escalation between Trump and the Kim regime. Kim Jong-un has indicated he is willing to discuss denuclearization, and Trump surprised the world by announcing he intended to meet Kim in person for talks. Previous American Presidents have been skeptical of closely tying their political success to achieving stability with North Korea. That is because North Korean relations tend to follow a steady pattern that is incredibly difficult to change. This pattern is as follows – North Korea will escalate a situation in order to gain attention, and then back off in order to gain some concessions, such as relief from sanctions. They use this as cover to advance towards a goal, like nuclear weapons, at a stop-and-start pace. Trump appears to believe he can find a resolution to this cycle. It is possible that he has has pursued negotiations with Kim largely for good press and a photo op to help his approval ratings before the midterm elections in November. Additionally, it seems unlikely that Kim will commit to legitimate change. He appears only to be following the blueprint of his predecessors, to make gains by temporary deescalation. The only hope that this is not the case rests on whether China continues to support Kim. China accounts for 85 percent of North Korea’s trade, and it would be difficult even for North Korea’s economic elites to survive without China. Therefore, it is difficult for the Kim regime to make major decisions that are not serving Chinese interests. It is notable that after Trump announced his summit, Kim made his first international trip since becoming North Korea’s dictator to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The message was clear – change with North Korea still happens on Chinese terms first.
If Trump’s trade pressure on China proves to be effective – and early signs indicate it may be – then the summit between Trump and Kim could provide real steps to denuclearization. Yet most evidence suggests it is just another de-escalatory point in the cycle. If talks go poorly, then escalation will follow. In similar past situations, cooler heads have prevailed. This time, the hawks will be waiting in the wings.