Bannon on North Korea: The Dilemmas of Linkage



Trying to read the factions within the White House is a fool’s errand. But Bannon's brief but surprising exit interview with Robert Kuttner did reveal one legitimate axis of debate about how to handle North Korea, and it centers on the question of linkage.

For Bannon, the main challenge facing the United States is China, and the main source of that challenge is economic. Bannon’s call to Kuttner was not as strange as it appeared: like the protectionist wing of the Democratic party, Bannon was crystal clear that the administration’s priority should be swift action on trade. This would include a 301 case with respect to forced technology transfer—measures that are not proscribed under China’s WTO accession agreement—to be followed by anti-dumping actions with respect to steel and aluminum. Bannon sincerely believes that if the economic playing field is not leveled, the results will be catastrophic: “one of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down [the current] path.”

What does this have to do with North Korea? Plenty. First, Bannon thinks that the situation is fundamentally stable and that there is little the US can do on the military front. Wildly exaggerating the costs of a military strike—but nonetheless getting the constraints exactly right—Bannon says the following (and Kuttner puts it in quotes): “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” The message: the focus on North Korea is a “sideshow” (his word), and the focus on military solutions is a fantasy.

Second—and the main point—is that the president and some of his advisors, for different reasons, have made the tactical mistake of linking the North Korean and trade issues. He provides additional first-hand evidence that trade actions vis-à-vis China were in fact delayed because of the effort to get China to help on North Korea. Bannon is skeptical: “On Korea, they’re just tapping us along.”

Finally, Bannon sheds some light on what a military strategist might call “the correlation of forces” within the administration, although the language needs some translation. One faction is clearly the trade doves who are focused primarily on the economic agenda and reluctant about initiating a trade war with China regardless of the North Korean issue; presumably, the peninsula plays in primarily as a useful foil. A second faction is doves at Defense and State (including Susan Thornton, whom he names) that Bannon was seeking to marginalize. But to be clear, Bannon is concerned about these people not because of their dovishness with respect to North Korea—the “sideshow,” but presumably because they are soft on the China agenda that he wants to pursue, and particularly with respect to trade.

With or without Bannon’s departure, the eruptions of two weeks ago have settled back into the broad strategy outlined by Tillerson with Mattis and others reiterating the “all options on the table” mantra to keep the pressure up. (For a 40 second explanation of this mantra, see a little clip from an interview I did on Fox two weeks ago). Yet the status of the third White House faction on these issues—the China hawks—remains uncertain. I am betting that the administration will not come down as hard as the Bannons of the world (or I) would like. The reason: we appear to reserve our tough trade talk for allies, not adversaries; see Lighthizer on the NAFTA negotiations.  

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