Let’s assume, for the sake of argument and for the sake of our collective ability to sleep at night, that President Donald Trump’s tweets to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about the size of his, um, nuclear arsenal are not in fact bringing us closer to the brink of a catastrophic war. What is the best case scenario for the impact of President Trump’s juvenile, bullying, jingoistic conduct of foreign policy in the Korean peninsula and beyond? It’s not that America is “great again.” It’s not that we are more respected, as Mr. Trump claims. It’s that we’re irrelevant.
President Trump has declared talks with North Korea to be a waste of time, even going so far as to publicly rebuke his own secretary of state’s efforts at establishing communications with the Kim regime. But on Wednesday, the governments of the North and South took steps to reopen a direct line of communication in preparation for possible high level talks. The immediate issue at hand is whether North Koreans can participate in the Winter Olympics next month in South Korea, but both sides have expressed an openness to discussing broader issues.
Despite having opposed the idea of talking to the North, Mr. Trump appeared on twitter to take credit for a New Year’s overture from Mr. Kim, claiming it was the result of the sanctions and “other” pressure the U.S. has applied. More likely, it was a canny move by Mr. Kim to exploit new division between the Trump administration and the South Korean government. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected last year after his predecessor, a hard-liner on North Korea, was impeached, has long been a proponent of increased dialogue. Whether he’s right or wrong, President Trump has no power to stop him.
President Trump has also been busy tweeting in support of the protests in Iran. Unlike his bizarre belief that playground taunts can thwart the North Korean nuclear program, he’s basically right about what’s going on in the Islamic Republic. People there are, as he suggests, protesting the regime’s corruption and poor economic policies that have led to inflation and rapidly declining standards of living among all but the elites, who benefited disproportionately from the lifting of sanctions as part of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal. (Human rights, contrary to his suggestion, seem to be a back-burner issue, unlike in the Tehran protests of 2009.)
Mr. Trump promises “great support from the United States at the appropriate time,” but it is far from clear that the people doing the protesting need or even want his support. A whole panoply of policies the Trump administration has taken alienate it from the Iranian people — the ban on travel to the United States by ordinary Iranians, the cozy relationship with regional rival Saudi Arabia, the unilateral decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and so on. The religious and government leaders of Iran are adept at deflating dissent by claiming it is the product of external enemies, rather than their own misrule, and they are pushing that narrative hard now. The nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has been all but matching Mr. Trump tweet for tweet, accusing the U.S. and other foreign enemies of “sowing discord among people” and using “money, weapons, politics & intelligence services, to trouble the Islamic Republic. The enemy is always looking for an opportunity & any crevice to infiltrate & strike the Iranian nation.” (And in a particularly Trumpish touch, Mr. Khamenei declared Ronald Reagan to be “both wiser and more powerful than Trump.” His nuclear button was bigger too, for what it’s worth.)
Some Trump advisers are urging him to take the opportunity provided by the protests to reimpose the sanctions lifted by the nuclear deal, but not only would that provide the Iranian regime with a greater opportunity to rally against a foreign enemy, it would also be unlikely to persuade any of the other parties to the deal to withdraw. The United States didn’t have the influence to do that under the Obama administration, and it certainly doesn’t now.
What’s curious about President Trump’s “America first” policy is that it isn’t isolationism. On the contrary, Mr. Trump seems all too eager to influence international events, whether it’s in global trouble spots like Syria, Israel, Iran or North Korea, or domestic affairs among our allies, like the French presidential election. The trouble is, no one is paying attention.
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