Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
There is an existential danger lurking deep within the foreign policy of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson – one that could come bubbling to the surface even before the May summit of NATO heads of state that will mark the President’s first foreign venture since his inauguration.
Commentator Masha Gessen describes it in an interview with Politico as “the danger of having…two unhinged, power-hungry men at their respective nuclear buttons [that] cannot be overestimated.”
She’s talking, of course, about Trump and Putin. But she could equally be talking about President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, or even Chinese President Xi Jinping. But really, none of these is the real danger.
The real danger is evident in the language that Tillerson used at the start of his recent Asian swing – that the time for soft diplomacy, or as he put it, “strategic patience,” was ending.
Which suggests that neither he nor Trump has ever appreciated the breadth, and the nuances, of the power they collectively wield.
It’s manifestly greater than the power of one of the world’s largest corporations (namely, Tillerson’s former employer, ExxonMobil) or the world’s most hyperbolic real estate developer.
Each day, Kim Jong-un seems to be edging ever closer to a deliverable nuclear weapon. So, the time might come all too soon when the Pentagon may have to present Trump and Tillerson with viable alternatives to Armageddon.
It’s notable that Tillerson’s most interesting encounters during his Asian visit were his few “intense, close, face-to-face” conversations with Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Commander of US Forces in Korea at the demilitarized zone between North and South, observed by the one journalist Tillerson took with him on this swing, Erin McPike of the right-wing Independent Journal Review.
More than anyone else, General Brooks understands the knife’s edge where Korea and the forces under his command are poised.
To a degree, this scenario – the generals providing a nuanced voice of moderation – has already quietly been deployed in the Trump administration’s strategy against ISIS.
Recall the campaign-era assertion that candidate Trump had a closely-held plan to defeat ISIS that was better than anything his generals had been able to muster.
Then there was the newly-inaugurated President’s demand that his generals present him with a plan within 30 days.
Those 30 days have quietly come and gone. And that Pentagon plan appears to have morphed into an Obama-style plan to deal with ISIS: American advisors training and traveling with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, but with a bit more on-the-ground American muscle.
That’s likely to increase modestly over the next few months as forces close in on the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
With respect to North Korea, the world’s most proximate danger, the generals may soon have to do for Trump what Netanyahu’s generals did for him – back quietly away from the edge of an abyss that has no clear bottom if America or the world were to plunge into it. Netanyahu, who had wanted to tear up the Iran nuclear pact, as President Trump once pledged, now has quietly accepted that his military cannot take out an Iranian nuclear program that would likely result.
Any use of a nuclear weapon on the crowded Korean peninsula would have incalculable collateral damage. Several years ago, I asked a Rand Corporation researcher to run a simulated war game for World Policy Journal. The escalation quickly engulfed South Korea and heavily-populated areas of China with nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.
Indeed Seoul, the South Korean capital, is barely 35 miles from the North Korean frontier and 120 miles from its capital, Pyongyang.
We certainly cannot count on Kim Jong-un’s capacity for self-restraint in the face of real, or even imagined, threats from the nation he regards as his sworn enemy – the US – and its allies: particularly South Korea and Japan. Bellicose talk from Washington’s top diplomat can only raise the flame beneath a region already approaching full boil.
President Trump recently agreed to attend the NATO summit in Brussels in May – his first foreign trip as president.
The best outcome of this visit could indeed be the ability of the assembled heads of state to reinforce a degree of measured strategic thinking as President Trump is surrounded by two dozen of his peers, none of whom wants to see a full-blown confrontation between any major power that could quickly escalate to nuclear scale.
Hopefully that process began last week in Washington, when Tillerson convened the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS, comprising 68 organizations and countries, most of them victims of or unwilling hosts of terrorist networks or individuals.
The conference assembled on the very day of the latest terrorist attack in London. The British delegate, Boris Johnson, himself a onetime mayor of London, observed that the fight against terrorism, whether individual or state-sponsored would not be deterred. But above all, the response must be measured and appropriate.
As a first step, Tillerson announced that the US would set up “interim zones of stability” to help refugees return home.
This might be the first concrete evidence of a new axis that seems to be developing behind the scenes in Washington. Such an Axis of the Rational would include Defense Secretary James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster.
Hopefully, they will succeed in drawing Tillerson into their fold, focusing on a real strategic vision in a way that will allow them to say “no” to Trump, and his more militant advisors, Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller at any future, critical juncture.
Tillerson believes his biggest priority so far has been to outline on his whiteboards how to streamline the State Department and save money.
But the department doesn’t need an efficiency expert or budget cutter. It needs a diplomat at least, a visionary at best, who can bring a weltanschauung, or world view, to a president who likely can’t even pronounce it.
The whole world is holding its collective breath in anticipation.