ATLANTA – When U.S. President Donald Trump meets again with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month, he will be staging the second act in a comedy of manners that now passes for U.S. foreign policy on the Korean Peninsula. Between Kim’s billets-doux to the White House and Trump’s gushing praise of Kim, the script could have been written by Oscar Wilde. Like any drawing-room farce, the plot is simple enough: Kim will pledge to abandon his nuclear weapons someday, while coquettishly concealing any details about the program that produces them, and Trump will promise to shower wealth on the Kim dynasty if he does.
But, of course, this play is more tragedy than comedy. Like Trump’s threats to abandon long-standing alliances, withdraw U.S. forces from strategically important regions and tear up trade deals, the prospect of more presidential shooting from the hip is unnerving U.S. allies, soldiers, diplomats and even some politicians.
There is good reason to worry, given the outcome of the two leaders’ summit in Singapore last June. Trump’s naive acceptance of Kim’s empty promises over the past eight months has only served to erode U.S. leverage in South Korea and beyond. The North has continued to pursue its ballistic missile program; and through his overtures to South Korea and China, Kim has succeeded in weakening sanctions on his regime.
Trump has not only failed to halt Kim’s nuclear ambitions; he has also undermined America’s role as a deterrent in Asia. With North Korea’s conventional arsenal already threatening Japan and other countries that host U.S. forces, Trump’s public intimations about drawing down troops in South Korea and elsewhere have fundamentally altered the regional strategic calculus. If asked, leaders in Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei and Southeast Asia might dissemble and avoid stating the obvious. But the fact is that Trump has cast doubt on U.S. defense commitments at a time when both North Korea and China are increasingly pursuing their own regional ambitions.
This problem weighs heavily on the minds of other US policymakers. Hence, whenever Trump travels abroad, a squad of senior officials follows in his wake — like street sweepers after a parade — to reassure allies. Yet, no matter how effective their talking points, they cannot undo the damage that Trump has done to America’s credibility.
Consider Trump’s statement last June declaring that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat.” That would certainly come as news to Japan, America’s most important ally in the region. Even if the Kim regime did agree to abandon its effort to develop reliable intercontinental nuclear missiles, it would still have thousands of nuclear-capable short- and medium-range missiles pointing at Japan.
The Trump administration is also neglecting the threat posed by the North’s conventional arms. Trump’s unilateral decision to suspend U.S. military exercises in South Korea is a case in point. Exercises involving U.S. and South Korean forces are vital for refining war plans, resolving operational and cultural issues, and honing military skills. As such, they play a central role not just in preparing for various contingencies on the Korean Peninsula, but also in Japan’s own self-defense. Ensuring the seamless cooperation of allied units in the region is as important to Japan as it is to the U.S. or South Korea, and perhaps even more so now that relations between Japan and South Korea are fraying.
Whatever emerges from his next summit with Kim, it is already clear that Trump’s disregard for U.S. alliances is taking a toll. Creating effective defense partnerships takes time and hands-on effort. If there is rancor among allies, cooperation on high-priority goals can be set back indefinitely.
For example, three years ago, U.S. officials brokered an important agreement to facilitate the exchange of intelligence data between Japan and South Korea. Yet today, Japanese-South Korean relations have grown tense once again over the issue of wartime reparations.
So far, this renewed acrimony has compounded the fallout from an incident last month in which a South Korean warship targeted a Japanese patrol plane. In the absence of U.S. mediation, the prospects for ongoing military cooperation between the two allies will likely continue to decline, pushing the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in closer to North Korea and China.
In fact, Daniel Sneider of Stanford University points out that some in Japan have begun to take seriously the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal from the region. With Trump constantly whining about allies not paying their fair share, and with South Korea going its own way, Japan’s leaders are being forced to reconsider long-standing assumptions about Japanese defense and security policy.
Trump’s disdain for U.S. security commitments and the relationships that sustain them has not been lost on Asia’s leaders. Few find comfort in his proclamations about expanding America’s role in the world, given his more frequent threats to trash “unfair” alliances. As it happens, Trump recently signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, pledging $7.5 billion over five years to bolster U.S. engagement in Asia. The program’s acronym — ARIA — is all too appropriate for Trump’s policies and their effects on America’s standing in Asia. An aria, after all, is a song sung alone.
Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA’s director of Public Affairs. John Walcott is an adjunct professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. © Project Syndicate, 2019