Editor’s Note: Tim Kaine is a US senator from Virginia. He served as a federal appellate law clerk and then practiced civil rights law for 17 years in state and federal courts. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees – and the father of a Marine – my job is to minimize the risk of unnecessary war and maximize the chance that we will decisively win any war we must fight. And like many Americans, I am very disturbed that we may be drifting toward an avoidable war with North Korea.
Our national security experts – including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — rightly point out that the US prefers diplomacy over war and is never out of diplomatic options. But President Donald Trump often undercuts them by tweeting out juvenile challenges to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un or dismissing the prospect that diplomacy might work.
Throughout history, we have seen how back-and-forth provocations, mistakes and miscommunications can lead to large unintended conflicts. President Trump’s rash actions raise the prospect of “war by accident.”
We need to avoid a costly and catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula. And creative diplomacy can help us do so. What must we do?
First, the President should quit raising the risk. He should cut out the inflammatory tweets. He should maintain a strong partnership with South Korea – the absence of an ambassador to South Korea for almost a full year sends the message that he doesn’t take this important relationship seriously. (Victor Cha, the Georgetown professor Trump picked for the post only last month has yet to be formally nominated for Senate confirmation.) Trump should express openness and desire for a diplomatic path, rather than demeaning those who pursue it.
Second, we need to show North Korea that we would stand by our diplomatic deals. The President’s threat to terminate the Iran nuclear deal – which our international partners and the International Atomic Energy Agency say is working – suggests that the US will not honor a deal once it’s made. If Trump does back out, it would make any potential partner wary of entering into a future deal with America. It is important for the administration and Congress to be scrupulous in honoring our commitments under the deal so long as it is being complied with.
Third, we must continue to invest in protecting ourselves and reassuring our allies – like South Korea and Japan – that we will help defend them. The administration is doing well by continuing past commitments to those nations and positioning military assets to provide additional protection in the event of increasing North Korean aggression. The recently signed National Defense Authorization Act includes investments to provide additional protection to the United States from the growing risk that North Korea poses to us.
Fourth, the administration must continue to recognize the important role of China in this challenge. Because we have no relations with North Korea, our leverage is minimal. But China is a lifeline to North Korea and should be using its leverage to promote stability in the region. Sometimes, we act like a supplicant, begging China to assist in the effort. The reality is that China has much to lose in a war on the Korean Peninsula, which would deeply affect its economy and risk massive migration of North Koreans coming over the border.
Fifth, Congress must reclaim its oversight of the President’s power to initiate war. While a President can always act unilaterally to defend America from an imminent attack, Congress is supposed to hold the power to start an offensive war. Presidents of both parties over the years have taken advantage of a congressional abdication of responsibility in this regard and seized for themselves the right to start wars, even in the absence of any imminent threat to our country.
For instance, in April, the Trump administration fired missiles at an airbase in Syria to respond to that country’s barbarous use of chemical weapons. The administration has not claimed that any US personnel were at risk and has not provided clear domestic and international legal justification for such military action. Unless Congress reasserts its important constitutional power, the risk of an unchecked President starting an unnecessary war will remain high during this administration.
Finally, we must be creative in finding a diplomatic path forward. We want North Korea to denuclearize, but the administration’s approach has been all sticks and no carrots. What might North Korea want in order to stop developing nuclear weapons? What if a peace deal to end the Korean War were on the table?
Not many Americans realize that nearly 70 years since the Korean War began, the conflict is in a cease-fire mode – with an armistice stopping active hostilities, but no peace deal. It’s still a cold war. Part of the North Korean mindset has been to justify its weapon programs on the grounds that there is no peace accord; American troops are amassed on its border and the war could begin again at any moment. The development of weaponry, including nuclear weapons, became part of a defensive strategy to protect the country and the current regime.
Over the years, North Korea has broached the idea of a peace treaty to end the war. We should engage in dialogue without precondition and see whether an offer of a peace deal might provide North Korea with a degree of comfort that would reduce its motive to keep pouring resources into militarization, instead of meeting the needs of its people. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also called for such a proposal to bring lasting peace to the peninsula.
By taking these steps, the Trump administration could show a true commitment to peace and ultimately avoid catastrophe. We have seen the painful consequences of unnecessary war, and we risk stumbling into another one if President Trump doesn’t get serious about diplomacy with North Korea.