Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and Levermore Research Fellow at Adelphi University. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
For more than seven months, it was widely reported that Georgetown University professor Victor Cha would be the next US ambassador to South Korea. That expectation was shattered on Tuesday when the Washington Post reported his nomination would likely not be forthcoming.
This situation is highly unusual given that Cha had undergone extensive vetting, and Seoul had officially approved him. The nomination of Cha would have been an outstanding appointment, but his ghosting by the White House – staffers there literally stopped returning his calls – is not only a bad omen, it is actually dangerous.
I may have some political disagreements with Cha, but he is one of the leading experts on America’s East Asia alliances and has been a major figure in the field for two decades. He is widely respected for his academic work and his practical experience. And Cha was actually willing to serve in the Trump administration.
So, why is Cha unlikely to assume the ambassador position? Though the White House has thus far declined to comment, allegedly his “crimes” were twofold. First, he opposes a preventive, so-called limited strike on North Korea, which would target a small number of military sites to send a message to Kim Jong Un that further provocations would not be tolerated.
While sources told CNN that Cha’s military stance is the reason for the White House decision, I suspect there is a second reason. Cha supports the United States remaining in the Korea/US Free Trade Agreement, known as KORUS, which significantly reduces tariffs on trade between the two allies. Trump has indicated he may withdraw from KORUS and try to negotiate a better deal.
To do this, Trump will need someone in Seoul who both believes in his discredited protectionist economic position and can manage to persuade the South Korean government to return to the negotiating table. Cha may not have been willing or able to sell that to Seoul, but nobody with any knowledge or experience will be able to do that either, especially when Trump’s preferred negotiating tactic is effectively, “You give me what I want. Period.”
The other potential issue for Cha is his detailed and nuanced policy prescriptions for dealing with North Korea. He wrote in his exit op-ed in the Washington Post that his vision for managing North Korea includes: “enhanced and sustained US, regional and global pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize … up-gun[ning] its alliances with Japan and South Korea with integrated missile defense, intelligence-sharing and anti-submarine warfare and strike capabilities to convey to North Korea that an attack on one is an attack on all; [and a] maritime coalition around North Korea involving rings of South Korean, Japanese and broader US assets to intercept any nuclear missiles or technologies leaving the country.”
Achieving these goals will require deft diplomacy and the work of many experienced and accomplished diplomats. But a president who prefers to get his information from television or one-page memos may not be able to handle Cha’s level of nuance or complexity.
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Cha’s ghosting comes in the context of increased talk of war, albeit during an unofficial Olympic truce. His dismissal adds to the narrative that Washington is gearing up for a “bloody nose” strike that nobody in the region wants, and that the United States doesn’t need. The impact of this decision could result in a reorientation away from the United States by our allies – something North Korea and China hope for – and increase the likelihood that Kim Jong Un misperceives a joint South Korean-American drill or exercise as an attack, something that our allies (and China) fear.
Unfortunately, one year into Trump’s presidency, the fact that expertise, nuance and reasoned thinking have no place in his decision-making comes as a shock to nobody.