Every president has an early foreign policy test, and Donald Trump is no exception. Trump’s test is already in progress, and it bears some resemblance to the one faced by President John Kennedy. Indeed, Trump’s crisis has best been described as a “slow-motion Cuban missile crisis” — only the crisis-driver is North Korea’s bizarre despot, Kim Jong Un.
If this crisis is not keeping you up at night, you’re not paying attention.
Let’s see, we have an untested, macho, Twitter-happy U.S. president facing off against the leader of a dynastic North Korean political cult who’s building a long-range nuclear missile that could hit Los Angeles and who — allegedly — just had his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, knocked off by two women who wiped his face with a lethal nerve agent while he was transiting a Malaysian airport.
Hey, what could go wrong?
“We’re at an important inflection point,” explains Robert Litwak, from the Wilson Center, one of the premier experts on rogue states. “North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout that would enable its leadership to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ICBM,” or intercontinental ballistic missile.
Hard to believe, but this hermit kingdom with an economy the size of Dayton, Ohio, “is at a point where it could, by 2020, have a nuclear arsenal half the size of Great Britain’s with missiles capable of striking the U.S. homeland,” said Litwak.
Have a nice day!
As Litwak explains in his new book, “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout,” North Korea is on the cusp of moving from a nuclear arsenal estimated to be in the midteens to one that could be as large as 100 warheads, and from missiles that can hit only Japan and Korea (and China!) to ones that can cross the Pacific.
Trump did not create this problem, but he will have to fix it. And it has reached a point where the U.S. has only three options: awful, bad and worse. Or as Litwak describes them: “bomb, acquiesce or negotiate.”
Bombing runs the risk of escalating into a second (possibly nuclear) Korean war with over a million casualties. North Korea’s nuclear facilities are “hot,” and bombing them could have untold consequences in terms of radioactivity. Acquiescing to a breakout means this failed state could — incredibly — become a major nuclear power with a global reach. “So that just leaves negotiating,” says Litwak.
Donald Trump negotiating with Kim Jong Un does have a certain pay-per-view quality about it, but it’s the least bad option. And to make it more interesting, the model that Trump should follow, argues Litwak, is the nuclear deal that Barack Obama struck with Iran, which Trump once described as “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
Obama negotiated what Litwak calls a “purely transactional” deal — Iran agreed to a 15-year halt on processing weapons-usable fissile material in return for significant sanctions relief, and no other behaviors were covered.
Obama’s bet? Something will happen in these 15 years that will be “transformational,” says Litwak, and provide the only true security — a change in the character of Iran’s regime.
Trump should follow that path, argues Litwak.
But Trump will need China, so he’d better think twice about starting a trade war with Beijing.
Trump will soon discover that in foreign policy, everything is like Obamacare — easy to criticize, more transactional than transformational, but all the other options are worse. And there are no pure wins to boast about. Those only happen on TV shows.