AS A CRITIC once said of Wagner’s music, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. The same could be said of our president’s pivot to Asia as he embarked on a 12-day tour that will feature meetings with allies and adversaries alike from Japan and South Korea to China.
The word is he’ll be out to cement his personal as well as political relationship with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and make it clear that this country and superpower will honor its long-standing commitment to the defense of South Korea. But not by making any moves as reckless as his rhetoric can be.
It’s not what this president says but what he does in this high-stakes game known as international diplomacy that will matter, so either by good luck or careful calculation he’s doing okay. For peace reigns at the moment. If he’s crazy, as some of his critics would have the American public believe, he may be crazy like a fox.
Donald Trump wouldn’t be the first American president to adopt some mercurial policies. Back in 1994, Bill Clinton first ordered an attack on North Korea’s only a-borning nuclear program. But then he changed his mind and backed off. Now this administration’s approach to Asia affairs also wings back and forth, more of a pendulum than a policy. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump spoke loosely of imposing a 45 percent tax on all goods imported from mainland China. And once in the White House, he lambasted Beijing for creating and then militarizing a series of offshore islands just off the Chinese coast.
Since then, President Trump has gone back and forth between cooperating with the Chinese communists on the mainland and confronting them. He’s jumbled trade negotiations with considerations of national security—an admixture his predecessors in the Oval Office had consistently avoided. Now he continues to speak of responding to Red China’s aggressive moves in the Pacific by raising the specter of a campaign against trade with the Chinese. At the same time, he’s dispatched warships to patrol the part of the South China Sea near the Spratly and Paracel Islands. All of which makes one wonder if this president is seeking to maintain the delicate peace in the Pacific or just playing an elaborate game of chicken.
If all this has left the Chinese confused, they can’t be any more bewildered than the American public, its pundits and professors, all of whom are watching these changes. This administration is following a zig-zag path through highly dangerous waters.
Once upon a time (1941, to be exact) the United States was caught by a sneak attack from Japan, but this time hostilities would be no surprise, for they have become the subject of one dispatch after another from the White House and the source of the danger has been clearly identified: North Korea’s erratic dictatorship, which could drag the whole region, if not world, into war. Pyongyang’s bluster matches that of this president. All in all, it’s a combustible atmosphere, and a single spark could have explosive results.
WHAT TO DO? For it’s too late to prevent North Korea from getting its own bomb and possibly the missiles to carry one across the Pacific to Hawaii and this country’s West Coast. Michael Auslin studies American-Asian relations at Stanford, where he considers the best way to deter North Korea. Here is what that scholar recommends: deterrence rather than aggression. For the North Korean threat is now out of the box and there’s no way to get it back in. Here’s what that scholar recommended in the latest issue of Commentary:
“This new approach explicitly makes deterrence the center of U.S. policy, dropping the unobtainable goal of denuclearization, or the imprudent goal of normalizing relations with North Korea. To be successful, Trump will need to get the support of both Seoul and Tokyo, which is a tall order. The alternative, however, is another round of Kabuki negotiations for the diversion of U.S. attention from the far more necessary task of ensuring that [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Un is kept in his nuclear box.”
Pleasant journey, Mr. President. Many of us back home will be following your course with great interest and not a little trepidation. For much depends on it. Like the peace of the world.