Trump torched America’s foreign policy infrastructure. The results are becoming clear.
Earlier this week, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, visited The New York Times editorial board, and I asked him about the threat of armed conflict between his country and India over Kashmir. India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over the Himalayan territory, which both countries claim, and which is mostly divided between them. India recently revoked the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of the part of Kashmir it controls and put nearly seven million people there under virtual house arrest. Pakistan’s prime minister compared India’s leaders to Nazis and warned that they’ll target Pakistan next. It seems like there’s potential for humanitarian and geopolitical horror.
Khan’s answer was not comforting. “We are two big countries with very large militaries with nuclear capability and a history of conflict,” he said. “So I would not like to burden your imagination on that one, but obviously if things get worse, then things get worse.”
All over the world, things are getting worse. China appears to be weighing a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown in Hong Kong. After I spoke to Khan, hostilities between India and Pakistan ratcheted up further; on Thursday, fighting across the border in Kashmir left three Pakistani soldiers dead. (Pakistan also claimed that five Indian soldiers were killed, but India denied it.) Turkey is threatening to invade Northeast Syria to go after America’s Kurdish allies there, and it’s not clear if an American agreement meant to prevent such an incursion will hold.
North Korea’s nuclear program and ballistic missile testing continue apace. The prospect of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine is more remote than it’s been in decades. Tensions between America and Iran keep escalating. Relations between Japan and South Korea have broken down. A Pentagon report warns that ISIS is “re-surging” in Syria. The U.K. could see food shortages if the country’s Trumpish prime minister, Boris Johnson, follows through on his promise to crash out of the European Union without an agreement in place for the aftermath. Oh, and the globe may be lurching towards recession.
To be sure, most of these crises have causes other than Trump. Even competent American administrations can’t dictate policy to other countries, particularly powerful ones like India and China. But in one flashpoint after another, the Trump administration has either failed to act appropriately, or acted in ways that have made things worse. “Almost everything they do is the wrong move,” said Susan Thornton, who until last year was the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, America’s top diplomat for Asia.
Consider Trump’s role in the Kashmir crisis. In July, during a White House visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump offered to mediate India and Pakistan’s long-running conflict over Kashmir, even suggesting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to do so. Modi’s government quickly denied this, and Trump’s words reportedly alarmed India, which has long resisted outside involvement in Kashmir. Two weeks later, India sent troops to lock Kashmir down, then stripped it of its autonomy.
Americans have grown used to ignoring Trump’s casual lies and verbal incontinence, but people in other countries have not. Thornton thinks the president’s comments were a “precipitating factor” in Modi’s decision to annex Kashmir. By blundering into the conflict, she suggested, Trump put the Indian prime minister on the defensive before his Hindu nationalist constituency. “He might not have had to do that,” she said of Modi’s Kashmir takeover, “but he would have had to do something. And this was the thing he was looking to do anyway.”
At the same time, Modi can be confident that Trump, unlike previous American presidents, won’t even pretend to care about democratic backsliding or human rights abuses, particularly against Muslims. “There’s a cost-benefit analysis that any political leader makes,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama national security aide. “If the leader of India felt like he was going to face public criticism, potential scrutiny at the United Nations,” or damage to the bilateral relationship with the United States, “that might affect his cost-benefit analysis.” Trump’s instinctive sympathy for authoritarian leaders empowers them diplomatically.
Obviously, India and Pakistan still have every interest in avoiding a nuclear holocaust. China may show restraint on Hong Kong. Wary of starting a war before the 2020 election, Trump might make a deal with Iran, though probably a worse one than the Obama agreement that he jettisoned. The global economy could slow down but not seize up. We could get through the next 17 months with a world that still looks basically recognizable.
Even then, America will emerge with a desiccated diplomatic corps, strained alliances, and a tattered reputation. It will never again play the same leadership role internationally that it did before Trump.
And that’s the best-case scenario. The most powerful country in the world is being run by a sundowning demagogue whose oceanic ignorance is matched only by his gargantuan ego. The United States has been lucky that things have hung together as much as they have, save the odd government shutdown or white nationalist terrorist attack. But now, in foreign affairs as in the economy, the consequences of not having a functioning American administration are coming into focus. “No U.S. leadership is leaving a vacuum,” said Thornton. We’ll see what gets sucked into it.
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, the South Korean military said, the North’s second weapons test in less than a week.
The missiles were launched from near Wonsan, a coastal town east of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, the South Korean military said in a brief statement. They flew 155 miles to the northeast, reaching a height of 18 miles, before splashing into the sea, it said.
South Korean officials declined to offer further details, pending analysis of flight and other data together with their United States allies.
“North Korea’s recent series of missile tests does not help efforts to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and we urge the North to stop this type of act,” the South Korean military said.
That was the first time South Korea had formally accused the North of testing a ballistic missile since November 2017, when the North launched the Hwasong-15, an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. United Nations resolutions forbid North Korea to launch ballistic missiles of any kind.
Japan said the North Korean projectiles launched Wednesday had not landed in its territorial waters, indicating that they were short-range weapons.
North Korea’s resumption of weapons testing has come amid stalled efforts to resume talks with the United States on ending its nuclear weapons program.
President Trump met with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in the Demilitarized Zone on June 30, and both leaders agreed to resume staff-level dialogue between their governments. But such talks have yet to take place.
Weeks before Mr. Kim met with Mr. Trump in Singapore in June last year in the first-ever summit meeting between North Korea and the United States, Mr. Kim announced a moratorium on his country’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Mr. Trump has since repeatedly touted the absence of such tests as his biggest diplomatic achievement in dealing with Mr. Kim.
With North Korea’s latest tests involving short-range missiles, Mr. Kim did not abandon his moratorium. But they violated the United Nations Security Council resolutions that bar the country from developing or testing ballistic missile technologies, South Korean officials said.
Mr. Trump downplayed the significance of the North’s recent missile tests last Thursday, calling them “smaller ones” and repeating that he was still getting along “very well” with Mr. Kim.
“My relationship with Kim Jong-un is a very good one, as I’m sure you’ve seen,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Tuesday. “I like him; he likes me. We’ll see what happens.”
The Singapore meeting ended with a vague agreement in which Mr. Trump committed to building new relations and providing security guarantees for North Korea in return for Mr. Kim’s agreement to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But when the leaders met again in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February, they failed to agree on how to implement their earlier deal.
The Hanoi talks collapsed when Mr. Kim demanded that Washington lift all major sanctions against his country in return for the dismantling of its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. Mr. Trump insisted on a more comprehensive breaking up of the North’s nuclear programs, including its nuclear weapons and missiles.
Mr. Kim has since said he would give Washington until the end of the year to return to the negotiating table with “new calculations.”
“This type of saber rattling is not threatening, but rather is intended to get the attention of North Korea’s more powerful neighbors,” Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow with the Defense Priorities research institute in Washington, said by email about the Wednesday tests. “Kim Jong-un wants to negotiate and signal his ability to take actions the U.S. and others don’t like in an effort to speed up diplomacy.”
“There’s an opening to negotiate for freezes and potentially rollbacks in exchange for limited sanctions relief,” Mr. Davis added. “But unless Washington is willing to make such trade-offs and normalize relations, expect Kim to continue developing weapons and testing them.”
It’s not about nuclear weapons, leverage with President Trump or the trade war.
.. Such vagueness should come as no surprise since obtaining a compromise from Mr. Kim never was the purpose of Mr. Xi’s trip. China’s president did not travel to North Korea to prove to Mr. Trump that only the Chinese government can broker a deal with Mr. Kim or to gain bargaining power in the trade dispute. In keeping with the long, tangled history of Chinese-North Korean relations, Mr. Xi traveled to Pyongyang to lure back into China’s fold what he sees as a difficult and wayward subordinate.
China may be North Korea’s largest trade partner and a formal defense-treaty ally, but tension and distrust have characterized relations between the two countries for decades. Strains reappeared in recent years after Mr. Kim tested nuclear weaponsand seemed to pull back from China while repositioning North Korea closer to the United States and South Korea. China, for its part, has gone along with the latest punishing international sanctions against North Korea.
Kim Il-sung resented the asymmetry and as a hedge maintained ties to the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s: He needed Mao, but didn’t think Mao could be trusted. Sure enough, come 1972, China welcomed President Richard Nixon in Beijing and began rapprochement with the United States, while North Korea remained violently opposed to the presence of the several tens of thousands of American forces stationed in South Korea.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the patterns of Chinese-North Korean diplomacy, like so much to do with China, changed. Mao’s successors were more interested in developing China’s economy than in big-power politics. In 1978, the leaders Hua Guofeng and then Deng Xiaoping made North Korea their first overseas destination. But this flurry of diplomacy belied the emergence of new tensions in the alliance: The two countries’ political systems and approaches to economics and foreign affairs began to diverge.
By the mid-1980s, China was barreling down the path of “reform and opening-up,” as the official line went, and it wanted a stable international order, thinking that this would be more conducive to its own growth. But Kim Il-sung saw China’s burgeoning links to capitalist economies as a betrayal of the socialist trading bloc, and his government is suspected of having ordered assassination attempts and terrorist attacks abroad.
Then came what the North Korean government considered to be an unforgivable act of treachery: In 1992, as Communist regimes were collapsing across Eurasia, the Chinese government normalized relations with South Korea, leaving Kim Il-sung diplomatically isolated and economically in the dust.
After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, his son and successor Kim Jong-il asserted some measure of independence from China by not visiting for six years. He finally made a trip in 2000, soon before hosting the South Korean president for an unprecedented meeting and while preparing to bring President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang — or, only once it seemed like détente with South Korea and the United States was within grasp.
Several Chinese leaders, in turn, visited Pyongyang in the early 2000s, trying to project the image of a special relationship. Yet something was resolutely changing: The North Korean government was now doggedly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, not only to defend itself against the threat of regime change suddenly posed by a hostile Bush administration, but also to emancipate itself from its unreliable and bossy ally.