Trump Is Following, Not Leading
The United States has outsourced its foreign policy to regional allies. In South Korea, it might lead to peace — in Israel, it’s more likely leading to war.
On each side of Asia, Trumpian diplomacy is playing out in starkly different ways. U.S. President Donald Trump himself offered up the comparison as he dramatically juxtaposed his announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8 with sharing the news that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would soon be landing in Pyongyang to finalize details of a Trump-Kim Jong Un summit.
It’s certainly possible to make the case that Trump’s wild threats have created diplomatic space. But Trump’s own mercurial nature may not be the defining feature of his diplomacy. Unpredictability can be a useful tool of statecraft, but deploying it requires a carefully constructed, premeditated strategy. More often than not, Trump’s own senior officials are left guessing as to what the next step will be — not because he hasn’t told them, but because the president doesn’t know himself. In both the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, it’s the personality and priorities of regional leaders that are laying the groundwork for deals — or preventing them.
When South Korean President Moon Jae-in hosted his northern counterpart, Kim, at the border truce village of Panmunjom, it was the first time that leaders of the two countries had met in over a decade. The Kim-Moon meeting led to a series of confidence-building measures, including a joint declaration aspiring to formally end over six decades of hostilities.
The situation at the opposite end of Asia was quite different. At Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted the media for a bellicose PowerPoint presentation designed to further ratchet up tensions with Iran and to sway Trump’s decision on the Iran deal. This followed a missile strike, very probably carried out by Israel, on the T-4 military airbase near Homs in Syria, and events have subsequently escalated, with unprecedented Israeli operations against Iranian positions in Syria and Iranian attempts to strike Israeli military installations in the Golan Heights.
The prospect of a long-awaited peace on one side of Asia mirrors a long-feared war on the other. Both Moon and Netanyahu have long track records in staking out foreign-policy positions — although the former, until recently, pushed peace from behind the scenes, while the latter has been fomenting war on center stage for over two decades. So it’s no surprise that they’ve each tried to pull the United States in their direction. What’s different about Trump is how malleable he is to such pressure compared with previous presidents. Indeed, with different leaders as America’s allies and interlocutors in those two corners of Asia, the situation could have been reversed.
Moon hails from the liberal-pragmatic wing of South Korean politics, Netanyahu from the nationalist-hawkish side in Israel. Everything suggests that these two leaders viewed the prospect of the Trump administration through very different lenses — an opportunity for Netanyahu’s Israel versus a threat for Moon’s South Korea.
Seoul viewed Trump’s talk and tweets of possible preemptive military action on the Korean Peninsula (including “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one”) as detrimental, and perhaps devastating, to South Korea’s national security. Meanwhile, Trump’s aggressive overtures toward Tehran, as well as a newly contemptuous and hostile U.S. policy toward the Palestinians, were met with glee in Jerusalem — it is the sort of bluster that could lead to a direct confrontation between the United States and Israel’s adversaries, a situation Netanyahu has long hoped for.
In February, Moon managed to turn a Winter Olympics opening with the North into a fully fledged and rapidly advancing diplomatic game-changer. Two senior-level meetings with North Korean officials on the margins of the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games set in motion a dizzying sequence of events. South Korea’s national security advisor and its spy chief met Kim in Pyongyang for lengthy talks and returned with concrete achievements such as an agreement for a leaders’ summit, a Seoul-Pyongyang hotline, and what appeared to be the initial blueprint for future negotiations with Washington.
Of course, the entire process could still go belly up, not least when Trump finally meets the “Little Rocket Man.” But Moon’s own skillful playing of Trump created the diplomatic space for success with the North, as did his empathic meeting with Kim. Moon created a fait accompli of diplomacy over confrontation, ending the meeting with his North Korean counterpart by issuing the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.”
The South Koreans even had their national security advisor make the announcement of a planned Trump-Kim summit, which played to Trump’s penchant for theatrics while practically shutting the U.S. government out of the process. As speculation abounded about a possible Nobel Peace Prize, Moon deftly praised Trump and ceded the spotlight to him. The South Korean president had already negotiated a path away from conflict, become the indispensable intermediary, and fulfilled his unlikely post-election pledge to put Seoul in the “driver’s seat of the Korean Peninsula.”
Meanwhile, in Israel, things are reliably following the Netanyahu playbook. The Israeli leader’s arguments for quitting the Iran nuclear deal have become American policy. To Israeli ears, Trump’s May 8 announcement about the Iran deal had a very familiar ring — the message of threats, confrontation, regime change, and bringing Iran to its knees have been on the tongue of their own prime minister for over a decade.
To be sure, there are many differences between the two regions apart from the motivations of Moon and Netanyahu. The Middle East is strewn with hot wars, while East Asia is replete with frozen conflicts. In the Middle East, a series of U.S. allies including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have joined Israel in tag-teaming Washington as they attempt to stir conflict with Iran. In comparison, Japan’s hawkishness is limited, and China, the most powerful regional actor in East Asia, is actively seeking to manage the North Korean crisis.
And, unlike Iran, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and the powerful leverage that comes with them. If the Iran deal falls apart, and hostilities escalate, the conclusion for Tehran may be clear. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already responded to Trump’s withdrawal decision by announcing his readiness to relaunch parts of Iran’s mothballed uranium-enrichment program.
In Korea, the lucky outcome has been a fragile possibility of peace. But it will take responsible local leadership from U.S. allies and others. South Korea, with assists from Japan and China, has provided that. In the Middle East, however, myopic warmongering has won the day as U.S. allies led by Israel, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates piling on, have pushed a pliant U.S. president toward a confrontation that they perceive as beneficial to their own regional interests. Had there been a peace-seeking President Moon in Jerusalem, rather than a bellicose Netanyahu, tensions with both Iran and the Palestinians would likely be calming down rather than escalating.
For all his vitriol toward former President Barack Obama, Trump has been a case study in leading from behind. Key areas of national security policy are simply up for grabs in unprecedented ways. Regional actors should by all means assert their own aspirations, but the United States would surely be better off with some sense of its own geopolitical moorings rather than being at the whim of whoever is more effective at playing an easily gulled president.
Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project, the previous director of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation, and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.