Trump's North Korea Bluster Scores a Win, But at High Risk

By Marc Champion
March 7, 2018, 3:00 AM EST

Potential gains also seen amid dangers on Iran, NATO, trade
EU common defense initiative sparked in part by U.S. president

North Korea’s offer to suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for talks with the U.S. reflects an emerging truth about President Donald Trump’s unconventional foreign policy style: It may heighten the risk of conflict, but also the potential for breakthroughs.

As Trump said in a tweet on Tuesday: “the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction.”

Few diplomats or analysts believe that Kim Jong Un’s offer, relayed by South Korea, will in fact deliver a denuclearized Korean peninsula in exchange for the U.S. security guarantees suggested as a basis for talks.

The Kim dynasty has a history of dangling the prospect of a negotiated settlement on its nuclear arsenal, and then walking away after getting concessions. It has also made enormous human and financial sacrifices to build its arsenal and accused the U.S. of failing to uphold prior agreements.

The U.S., in turn, has run hot and cold from one administration to the next on the value of pursuing diplomacy with Pyongyang. Neither side has budged from long-stated preconditions for talks to happen.

“Caution, we’ve been here so many times before,” said James Hoare, a British diplomat and historian who opened the U.K.’s first embassy in Pyongyang in 2001.

Still, without Trump’s threats to unleash nuclear “fire and fury,” North Korea’s supreme leader might not have moved even this far.

“It may be we have to give Trump credit,” said Hoare, now an associate fellow at Chatham House, a U.K. think tank. “But if he really has been playing ‘crazy’ in some clever game, it’s an extremely dangerous one with horrific possible consequences for people on the Korean peninsula, Japan and elsewhere in the region.”

North Korea isn’t the only area where Trump’s willingness to risk all could potentially produce benefits.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last year lauded an accelerated increase in defense spending among non-U.S. members as a message of solidarity to Washington. Trump had previously shocked the alliance by suggesting commitment to NATO’s collective defense clause might be conditional on whether a member state had spent enough.

Whether there has in fact been a “Trump effect” on NATO spending is debated. Rising security threats that set budgets before his election were mainly responsible, according to John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Still, he said, “uncertainty about the U.S. may continue to drive increases.”

Fear of U.S. disengagement under Trump does appear to have helped revive some long-stalled initiatives to consolidate European military capabilities and procurement. At the December launch of a new EU agreement on Permanent Structured Cooperation in defense, known as PESCO, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Europe needed to be able to act alone, “especially after the election of the U.S. president.”

U.S. officials see the development as a two-edged sword, warning last month that PESCO must not be allowed to duplicate or undermine NATO. European leaders say there is no conflict.

In other areas such as trade and relations with Iran, it isn’t clear whether Trump’s brinkmanship and unpredictability can produce results to offset the risks that critics believe he is taking.

Trump’s recently announced import tariffs on steel and aluminum could give the U.S. leverage to hurry renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on better terms. “We’re not looking to get into trade wars,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday, as he confirmed a proposal to waive the tariffs for NAFTA members Mexico and Canada.

Yet if the tariffs remain, trade wars could start looking for the U.S. The European Union has already outlined duties on 2.8 billion euros ($3.5 billion) of U.S. imports -- including Harley Davidson motorcycles -- that the bloc plans to introduce should Trump’s taxes on steel and aluminum made outside the U.S. take effect.

The president’s threat to withdraw certification of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran unless it gets strengthened by May is another high stakes play, according to Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consultancy.

Under Trump, there is now a greater possibility that the deal could be improved, he said. France is leading the effort, and on Monday Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Tehran, attempting to persuade the Iranians to accept new restrictions on their ballistic missile program. Still, that looks like an uphill battle. Drian’s opposite, Mohammad Javad Zarif, accused France of playing U.S. games. Iran has said repeatedly it won’t agree to any changes or additions to the deal.

Trump has also significantly increased the risk that the agreement unravels, said Bremmer. If it does, Iran might immediately restart the uranium enrichment stockpiling that, by 2015, had brought it within months of “breakout,” the point at which it could quickly produce a nuclear weapon.

“Trump’s ability to completely flip on North Korea is greater than for any previous president,” and the same is true on Iran, said Bremmer, speaking at a recent security conference in Germany. But in these and other areas, he added, Trump is testing the pain thresholds of other nations. And there’s no guarantee they’ll back down.