The Trump administration achieved an admirable moment of global unity on Saturday: China and Russia joined the United Nations Security Council in approving tough sanctions in response to North Korea’s recent missile tests and nuclear threats.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump again united the globe — this time in fear and disbelief when he threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump invoked the threat of nuclear war in a spontaneous remark that he had not run by his staff, military or diplomatic advisers, as White House sources were quick to tell reporters.
Trump’s chest-thumping failed to shut down his counterpart (in too many ways, his counterpart) in Pyongyang for even a day.
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Trump told reporters, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.” Within hours, Kim Jong Un’s crew warned that it was considering attacking the U.S. territory of Guam, home to an Air Force base, with “an enveloping fire” and also warned that the U.S. mainland is vulnerable.
The president of the United States got himself into a tit-for-tat with the heir to a rogue dynasty that brutally rules one of the world’s poorest nations — and didn’t even get in the last chest-thump.
Meanwhile, the resolve and unity that Ambassador Nikki Haley had achieved at the United Nations evaporated into dismay and heightened tensions. Experts warned that the escalating rhetoric makes war, perhaps based on miscalculation, more likely.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to contain the damage, saying that nothing had “dramatically changed” and that “Americans should sleep well” unworried by “this particular rhetoric of the past few days.”
Tillerson’s reassurances would be more persuasive were not his State Department short of top-level diplomats. Trump has not even named an ambassador to South Korea.
Trump inherited a thorny challenge. The U.S. lacks leverage over the insular, nuclear-armed North Korea. China, its ally and trading partner, may dislike the instability the Kim regime brings, but China would dislike even more the emergence of an economically powerful democracy on its doorstep. Pushed to the wall, Kim could unleash his large military and inflict untold suffering on U.S. ally South Korea.
A unified international front is the best hope for curbing Kim’s nuclear program. Enforcing the sanctions against North Korea will take hard work, persistence and steady leadership.
Trump’s defenders say he was just speaking Kim’s language, but a U.S. president braying like an international pariah is not helpful.
The president should understand that blustering or blundering his way into even a non-nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula will not reverse his sagging popularity. More likely it would ensure that he goes down as the worst president ever.