President Trump’s tenure has been marked by scandal, both at home and abroad. While investigations into potential collusion between his campaign and the Russian government distract from his domestic agenda, belligerent rhetoric threatens longstanding relationships with our foreign allies. Despite it all, the Trump administration has made a significant amount of progress when it comes to fighting off the threat of war with North Korea. Hawks in the Republican Party had been angling for a second Korean conflict for decades, but in the early stages of his presidency, Trump resisted the overtures of party leaders and many of his favorite TV talking heads and strayed from direct talk of invasion. In a complete heel turn, he spent last summer shouting down Kim Jong Un, angrily denouncing his bomb tests and military exercises, and threatening the full “fire and fury” of the United States. Against all odds, this irrational, barely coherent strategy seemingly worked.
Trump’s bluster aside, talks between South and North Korea began, South Korean President Moon issued statements praising the American president for his help, and Kim Jong Un expressed his openness to denuclearization and a meeting with Trump. Despite the accolades he has received, I would argue that the diplomatic progress should be attributed to President Trump’s national security staff, and their more measured rhetoric and work behind the scenes, rather than the President himself. The work of James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H.R. McMaster- sometimes against Trump’s wishes, made these strides towards diplomacy and peace possible. With the latter two fired, and Bush-era war hawk John Bolton hired as National Security Advisor, America’s strategy and attitude towards North Korea is as uncertain as ever. Our Commander in Chief has proven himself to be easily persuaded, often leaning on whichever advisor is able to make the most compelling pitch. Whether it is discussing NATO’s usefulness or our presence in Syria, Trump has been glad to abandon his own principles to listen to the voice that last filled his ear. With Bolton in the West Wing, that voice will fill the Oval Office with songs of anger, of belligerence, and of war.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis said of a potential second Korean War that, “The tragedy… is well enough known. It does not need another characterization beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic”. By contrast, President Trump stated that, “Kim has gotten away with horrific things for a long time… maybe the statement [threatening to unleash fire and fury on North Korea] wasn’t tough enough.” Of these two, which reads more like a leader concerned with diplomacy and working towards a peaceful solution? Mattis, throughout the last year, has discussed his reverence of a book by T.R. Fehrenbach titled, This Kind of War. The novel is a history of the Korean War aimed towards military minds, analyzing the mistakes that led to the conflict and America’s eventual failure to resolve it. Most of all, it acknowledges the absolute horror of war: Fehrenbach refers to its nature as “primitive, atavistic, and unrelenting”. Trump threatens the nation via tweets, while his Defense Secretary reads his history in order to develop a plan to avoid conflict. Clearly, Mattis, rather than Trump, was more instrumental in paving the road for diplomatic talks between the two nations.
Furthermore, now former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson committed himself to peace talks even against the specific advice of his boss. The former Exxon executive stated openly that he would have talks with Pyongyang without any preconditions- he would be glad to meet with North Korean officials even if they would not commit to denuclearization or any other concessions. Tillerson stated, “I will continue our diplomatic efforts until the first bomb drops”. Well, the metaphorical bomb dropped just two months later when President Trump tweeted out, “I told Rex Tillerson that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…” Presidents working towards diplomacy do not use pet names to refer to their counterparts abroad. You would expect such a tactic from a provocateur, not a peacemaker. Fortunately, while Trump tweeted, Tillerson, Mattis, and even more quietly, General McMaster, worked discreetly to establish set up a meeting of the two world leaders. However, just weeks after the meeting was agreed to, two-thirds of the team have been ousted. The Secretary of State position is now vacant, and John Bolton, a man who has always put attack over defense and war over peace, has been tasked with organizing diplomatic talks as President Trump’s new National Security Advisor.
John Bolton’s presence in the West Wing is the greatest current threat to peaceful relations between the United States and North Korea. His past statements, and one particularly frightening op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, confirm that Bolton does not have one diplomatic bone in his body. In a cable news appearance, the former Ambassador to the United States once stated that, “striking first to eliminate the imminent threat [from North Korea], qualifies as self-defense and is perfectly legitimate”. I believe that a potential summit between the American and North Korean leaders would be doomed for failure from the very start, if it even occurs. Bolton will instill in Trump unrealistic goals for the talks, and once these goals are not met, the justification for a potential war would be that ‘diplomacy failed’. In March, Bolton, at this point a TV talking head, argued that the summit should focus on coercing Kim Jong Un into surrendering his nuclear weapons. Going into such a historic summit with such a baseless and non-real hope dooms the meeting for failure before it has even taken place. What President Trump needs is a carefully crafted plan, tempered expectations, and an open mind as he heads into a likely meeting in late May.
The faults of Secretary Tillerson and General McMaster aside, there is no doubt that peace would have been their primary interest as they prepared President Trump for this summit. The same cannot be said of John Bolton. As an Under Secretary of State, Bolton derailed a U.N. proposal to enforce regulations on the use of biological weapons. Just four years later, Bolton’s nomination to serve as U.N. Ambassador was filibustered to the point of requiring a recess appointment from President Bush. During the (failed) confirmation process, one key quote resurfaced that summarizes Bolton’s career ideology. He thundered that, “There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power… the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to follow.” Diplomacy will be the farthest thing from the new National Security Advisor’s mind as he approaches North Korea. His presence threatens not only to derail all hope of a peaceful solution, but could also set America on the path to war. With Bolton by the President’s side, the probability of failed talks with Kim Jong Un, the first strike he has so often referenced, and the war he desperately craves are more imminent than ever.