Can’t go it alone
BSAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE arack Obama drew criticism for the perception that while he was president, the United States in some ways abandoned its traditional role of global leadership in favor of an approach that an Obama aide memorably described as “leading from behind.” But even as the U.S. stayed mostly away from the fray as the Syrian civil war turned into a massive humanitarian crisis, America maintained its leading position by pushing for a global response to climate change, supporting longstanding mutual defense pacts and championing free-trade deals.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump was all over the place on foreign policy, alternately sounding hawkish and isolationist. But he also said the U.S. should stop being the world’s patsy—both in offering costly military protection to nations that didn’t do enough to strengthen their own armed forces and in accepting trade agreements that in his view harmed U.S. workers and the U.S. economy.
There are elements of truth in his critique. But then and now, Trump has never appreciated that having strong bilateral relations with many nations is a two-way street, benefiting American interests by promoting stability and cooperation. With the exception of South Korea and Japan—which have the most at stake— Trump’s call to action on North Korea has so far won only muted or pro forma responses. Meanwhile, Russia and China, the nation with the most ability to influence North Korea because of its financial ties, are refusing to increase pressure on Pyongyang.
For the millions of residents of the Seoul metropolitan area—within easy reach of 8,000 North Korean big guns loaded with artillery shells from Pyongyang’s huge stockpile of biological and chemical weapons—the North’s belligerent talk shouldn’t just be scary. It should be terrifying.
The stakes could scarcely be higher. What the world needs is a calm, American-led effort to improve relationships with Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s military to address the nation’s fear that it is surrounded by enemies. What it doesn’t need is a unilateral American effort that is built on a diplomatic amateur’s bluster and denial.