The Dilemma of US Leadership
When Barack Obama came to power in 2009 he was quick to define the focal point of his first presidency − global denuclearisation. It wasn’t too long before Obama and his newly elected Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev met in Prague to ink the New START Treaty. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.
The tone set by current US President Donald Trump could not be more different. Unlike his predecessor, Trump has prioritised domestic issues over foreign policy. Yet, despite the desire to focus on fixing internal cracks such as illegal migration the Trump administration has confronted a long list of global challenges. April’s air strike on the Shayrat military base in Syria was the first unscheduled departure from Trump’s vision for US foreign policy. Washington’s response to Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons also run counter to Obama’s infamous ‘red lines’ policy.
From there, US relations with Turkey − both bilaterally and within NATO frameworks − have been strained by Washington’s support for Kurdish militias in Syria fighting Islamic State. A very similar pattern is observable in relations with Russia with Trump forced to extend sanctions against Moscow and downplay his ambitions of reaching a deal with Vladimir Putin on improving US-Russian relations.
In July, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching US territory. Pyongyang followed this in September by detonating its largest nuclear device to date. In doing so, the debate surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program has shifted from assessing capabilities to calculating intentions.
What hasn’t changed is the logic behind Pyongyang’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and its hawkish stance vis-à-vis its neighbours. Aggressive behaviour is a long-term survival strategy that provides the hermit kingdom with internal legitimisation and a bargaining position when dealing with the international community. An offensive nuclear capability would allow the regime to leverage greater benefits in return for cooperation while also significantly reducing the chances of external intervention.
Only three powers are capable of preventing North Korea from following this path — the US, China and Russia. Of the three, Washington has the highest chance of forcing change, given its regional alliance network and close ties with South Korea. That said, any action against Pyongyang will require the prior approval of the United Nations, with Moscow and Beijing unlikely to side with Trump in the absence of a crisis that effects their strategic interests.
This presents a dilemma for Trump whereby his actions (or inaction) could have direct consequences for the US’ global standing. The price of inaction would be a further withering away of US credibility in the eyes of its allies and a sign for other states with nuclear ambitions – all of whom have strained relations with Washington – to press on with weapons programs. On the other hand, military intervention − including support for Seoul if it decides to preemptively dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear program − would push the region into strategic mayhem.
South Korea would undoubtedly approach the military option with fear and trepidation. Not only does Seoul prefer a diplomatic solution, it also lacks the capacity to conduct a full-scale and independent military operation against its neighbour. Moreover, South Korea has faced episodic outbursts of hostile behaviour by the North for more than sixty years. Washington is well aware that any military scenario will mean destabilisation not only for the North but also the South.
It is also widely assumed that the deterrent value of nuclear weapons is far greater than their use against adversaries. Yet, while there are plenty of examples of overthrown dictatorships over the past two decades, there’s never been an international effort to topple a nuclear regime. Consequently, the Trump administration might refuse to pursue ‘strategic patience’ on the Korean Peninsula — the approach of his predecessor rather than his own foreign policy outlook. Choosing to act will fly in the face of his electoral promises to reduce US global leadership and responsibilities.