President Trump has spewed disdain for multilateralism and specifically the United Nations. Trump opted for his personal diplomacy at Mar-a-Lago but has been left bust, both on North Korea and China. Trump’s image of himself and those of others, ally or foe, further obfuscates options. Just as Trump is cutting back on Washington's financial commitments to UN Peacekeeping and other operations, perhaps he should reassess if an investment on multilateral diplomacy over his Mar-a-Lago styled art of the deal is more likely to pay off.
Mar-a-Lago Diplomacy & "Art of the Deal"
When it comes to an answer to North Korea nukes and missiles, the Trump Administration is no different now from its predecessors. It seeks, via Ambassador Nikki Haley, the UN Security Council forum as its back-up if not primary diplomatic tool from the outset. After heralding a "great" personal rapport between President Xi and himself while he hosted the Chinese President at his private golf club this spring, now barely into the summer Trump tweeted in effect the failure of Mar-a-Lago diplomacy. In the immediate aftermath of the Mar-a-Lago summit, Trump had tweeted his expectation that Beijing would be willing and able to leash the North Korean dictator, with the added incentive of more favorable trade treatment for China.
Personality Cult in Common?
During the short Trump Presidency the unpredictability of Trump appears only matched by that of Kim Jong-un. Trump had offered to even meet with Kim Jong-un and stated that such "would be an honor" presumably as part of the Art of the Deal and (over)-confidence in his personal diplomacy. To be certain, Trump and Kim do share much more than previous US and North Korean leaders particularly when it comes to hyperbole and effort at personality cult, (to a degree most Americans are uncomfortable.) Kim has been officially dubbed by his captive media as the "Outstanding Leader" and "Great Successor" to go along with his title of Supreme Leader. Kim also has a less flattering title bestowed upon him by China's Internet users, "Kim Fatty the Third", a reference to both the family dynasty of dictatorship as well as physical appearance. Trump's own behaviour may have done much to obfuscate his image with that of Kim, (see Photo), but the difference between North Korea and the United States as societies is polar opposites as is the past and present of each in the Korean Peninsula crisis.
So far it appears that Kim Jong-un is getting the better of Donald Trump, both in terms of the art of war (preparedness) and obedience from his media and citizens. Personality cult is definitely part of the Trump popularity among his "base," although a minority of America's voters. Trump has ascended to the Presidency but his popularity is not enshrined in US law or code of obedience. Kim continues to fire and test both nukes and missiles, at an even accelerated level, and now claims to be able to reach the US with an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear warhead.) A day after Kim delivered his "present" for America's Independence Day in the form of the latest, most advanced threatening intercontinental missile test, Trump tweeted, (July 5, 2017): "Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!"
Trump's tweet appears to be more than an admission of failure for his personal, Mar-a-Lago style diplomacy, but that he has been duped by Beijing, without of course admitting it outright. The consequences though are more than just lost time. Along with worsening trade and overall diplomatic relations between the US and China, there is also a dismembered set of relationships with allies in the region and beyond who believe they shared similar views and strategic interests on North Korea. Just as he had tweeted that he had learned much in 5 minutes from President Xi during Mar-a-Lago on the complexity of China-Korea history, perhaps President Trump should now educate himself on the history of the UN in Korea.
A Broad Alliance acting Multilaterally to Counter North Korea:
The war fought by US soldiers in Korea almost 70 years ago was on the basis of a UN mandate, and it involved a broad range of allies fighting alongside the US, from Australia to Turkey, who suffered significant losses in life but also earned great respect for their courage and distinguished service. The Soviet Union provided material support to North Korea. Beijing intervened directly with military forces resulting in thousands of lost American lives and mistreated US prisoners.
Altering the trajectory of China's foreign policy in the Koreas is a worthy objective. It has been tried now for several generations of American presidents; and only the hubris and over-stroked ego of Donald Trump matched by a lack of accountability led this Administration to plant all of America's initiatives in Beijing while our allies, North Korea's neighbors, and the UN were left outside of Mar-a-Lago's exclusive zone.
As Pumpkin Goes Nuclear in the Age of Orange White House:
Now, the Trump Administration heads back to the UN Security Council in an embarrassed state, (perhaps not recognized by Trump), and potentially late if not weakened. Resolution of North Korea has not had many good options but only bad to worse. This has been recognized by successive Republican and Democratic Administrations, but all hoped or at least opted to delay until ..... None had anticipated that a Trump like President though would be in the White House when the clock approached midnight, and North Korea would transform from nuclear danger to a direct threat to the US homeland via an ICBM missile.
The United Nations diplomatic cupboard may be inadequate but it is not bare. Most importantly, under UN resolution, the US has the capacity to reassemble the broad coalition, old and new, to counter North Korea's actions. Many are threatened and most see a dangerous precedent if North Korea is allowed to realize and legitimize its nuclear agenda. Iran may be seen as a nuclear danger for the future but its ambitions have been in theory reigned in. However, North Korea's nuclear program without adequate response could and more likely than not would unleash even more ambitious weapons programs from East Asia to the Middle East to Europe. We should recall that even Latin America at one time faced a potential nuclear rivalry.
The UN has an active, widely endorsed even if only partially successful program at nuclear disarmament. Over the last few decades India, Pakistan, and Israel have in effect been out-layers but North Korea would be a different challenge qualitatively and in terms of urgency. Further, there are several UN Security Council Resolutions that go well beyond mere condemnation but call upon biting sanctions to deter North Korea. The failure has been implementation and largely due to North Korea's most critical neighbor China along with Russia and handful of other porous states. Beijing and the Kremlin may see North Korea as problematic but on the other hand as a counterweight to US in the region. There may be weapons or key components imported by North Korea from its neighbors, which would be directly in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions. (See: "Is the UN Good for United S")
Is it Checkers, Chess or Diplomatic Poker?
While Presidents Xi and Putin offered their remedies on resolving North Korea during their recent summit, it would be wise to remind both, with the added weight of the almost entire UN membership, that their implementation of UN focused North Korea resolutions and sanctions has been inadequate at best or willfully porous, (as now Trump seems to recognize.) Xi and Putin appear to also deflect responsibility upon the US and South Korea for joint military exercises, (as deterrent as well as preparedness in view of North Korea's vastly larger conventional forces.) This is an effort at deflection by Beijing and the Kremlin sensing both a discombobulated and unprepared Trump. At the G-20, another institution of multilateralism this week in Hamburg, President Trump will have the opportunity to prove us wrong and reinforce America's call upon Beijing and the Kremlin by summoning the other allies gathered to the call; but instead, it is Trump who is likely to retreat to tete-a-tetes and photo-ops with presumed strong-men as Putin.
North Korea has in part become a complex chess game including but also beyond the three super powers. There are many others who have both a stake and role to play, even perhaps a perspective that can further toward resolving the crisis. Through multilateralism, including via the UN, it is imperative that the US marshall its coalition to confront North Korea but also pressure Beijing and Moscow. The notion that military confrontation is all or nothing serves to further the poker hand of Kim Jong-un and serves to minimize America's options. Conflict around the Korean Peninsula would undoubtedly be bad, very bad for South Korea and Japan, but China and even Russia would be very adversely affected. Trump has proven himself incapable of multilateral chess. The checkers game played by Trump has only managed to skip over America's allies and assets, including institutions of multilateralism, from ASEAN to the UN. In Trump's intellect, the art of the deal appears something akin to a two-handed poker game where the one who starts with the most chips is destined to win. However, there is one saying in poker particularly informative here:" If you're sitting around the poker table and you cannot recognize the designated sucker, then it is you!" In hindsight it is clear that even if it were Trump's club at Mar-a-Lago he was the ..... or to be more generous, he did not recognize the game or intellectually educate himself on the issue of Korea, past or present.
The UN is a table around which the US has many more allies and as critically the cards dealt are in America's favor. Those cards may not yet prove a winning hand. However, when it has been going bad as it has on North Korea, the US has at least the option of forcing the hand of others, even if it is a mere diplomatic possibility of reshuffling the deck. Beijing has avoided multilateralism in resolving the South China Sea territorial disputes in part because it faces an array of contestants who confront China with the rule of law. On the other hand, on North Korea, Washington has both the rule of law and the added weight of like-minded allies and multilateral diplomacy on America's side. And undoubtedly, America has the diplomatic expertise, (beyond the narcissist inclination of Trump to see himself as the "only one"), as well as military might to optimize its position beyond the current options mostly limited by Trump's own foresight.