Donald Trump Is Defining Successful Foreign Policy Down
The White House’s North Korea latest sanctions are benefiting from the soft bigotry of low expectations.
The Donald Trump administration (and its supporters) is giving itself a high-five over the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2371, which imposes harsh new economic sanctions on North Korea. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called it a “new day” at the world body, and her office issued a statement saying the measure might cut off as much as one-third of North Korea’s $3 billion annual export revenue. The hope, of course, is that this pressure will prompt Pyongyang to rethink its efforts to expand and refine its long-range missile capabilities. Even reliable Trump critics like former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner have praised the resolution, calling it a major diplomatic achievement.
I don’t want to be a killjoy, but permit me to register a modest dissent. To be sure, the resolution is a positive step, and I’m more than happy to give Ambassador Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Jared Kushner, Trump himself, or even one of Trump’s caddies full props for whatever they may have done to shepherd the agreement through the council. Heck, I’m even willing to call this the Trump administration’s finest hour thus far — at least this time it didn’t alienate an ally, foment a regional crisis, misspell a foreign leader’s name or get their title and nationality wrong, or tear up an invaluable multilateral agreement.
But let’s not go overboard here. I applaud McFaul, Drezner, and others for being fair-minded and giving credit where it’s due, but there may be a lot less here than meets the eye.
First of all, getting the Security Council to pass a resolution condemning North Korea is not exactly a heavy lift. By one count, for example, there have been 15 other resolutions condemning North Korea since it abrogated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty back in 1993, and the Security Council passed another resolution sanctioning North Korea as recently as March. North Korea is as close to friendless as any nation on Earth, and even its Chinese patrons have made it clear they don’t much like or trust the latest Kim to inherit the family business. China doesn’t want North Korea to collapse and certainly doesn’t want the Korean Peninsula unified under a pro-U.S. government in Seoul, but it doesn’t like Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities or missile program one bit, and neither does anyone else. To some extent, therefore, getting this resolution passed was like making water flow downhill.
Second, it’s by no means clear how much credit the United States deserves. As just noted, North Korea deserves most of the credit for this display of great-power unity, as its various activities and relentlessly bellicose rhetoric have alarmed its neighbors for years. More than that, the resolution didn’t impose an oil embargo on North Korea or prohibit Chinese banks from doing business there, and these omissions limit the impact on Pyongyang and preserve key Chinese interests, too. In short, the United States got the resolution not by clever arm-twisting or persuasive argumentation but by accommodating Beijing’s reservations. As Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the South China Morning Post, the resolution was in fact a win for China because “Beijing avoided additional sanctions on Chinese banks, entities that aid North Korea for the time being.”
Third, it remains to be seen if all of the signatories will even deliver on their pledge to cut off roughly $1 billion worth of North Korean trade. It is one thing to sign a resolution but quite another to halt valuable trade ties or crack down on illicit smuggling networks and other clandestine deals. Sanctions efforts are always somewhat porous, and my bet is that North Korea will find ways to get around some of these restrictions while some of signatories conveniently look the other way.
Most important of all, there is no reason to believe this resolution will solve the problem at hand, any more than earlier resolutions did. Sanctions are a means to an end but not an end in themselves, and the goal of a denuclearized and/or missile-free North Korea is probably out of our reach no matter what the Security Council does. North Korea clearly believes that having its own nuclear deterrent is critical to its long-term survival (and it is probably right), and it isn’t going to bargain that away no matter how tightly the United States (and others) tries to squeeze it. And because Beijing does not want the regime to collapse, there are limits to how far it will go to signal displeasure with its difficult neighbor. Pyongyang responded to the Security Council vote with its usual defiance, and in this case I’d be inclined to take it at its word.
A comparison with Iran is instructive. The United States was eventually able to assemble formidable multilateral sanctions against Iran’s nuclear activities, which many credit for having convinced Tehran to eventually agree to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that capped its nuclear program. But Iran never acceded to U.S. demands that it give up its entire enrichment capability or its entire stockpile of enriched uranium, and there is no reason to think it ever would have done so. The United States and the other parties to the JCPOA got a deal because they made a number of concessions, too, and the resulting agreement has kept Iran from getting any closer to actual weapons capability.
North Korea is already past that threshold, however, which puts additional limits on U.S. or Chinese leverage. Given its own vulnerabilities, and the fact that its enemies are far stronger economically and militarily, North Korea is not going to stop trying to develop a reliable deterrent of its own. The United States (and others) may be able to slow that development, but that’s about it.
For all these reasons, I’m afraid there’s less to this latest resolution than meets the eye. To repeat: It is a positive development, and it’s reassuring to see that the Trump administration can do something right. But if I worked in the White House, I wouldn’t start drafting any Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches just yet.
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