Conor McGregor on North Korea: Composure



In his gracious and insightful post-fight interview, Conor McGregor returned repeatedly to Floyd Mayweather’s composure: that Mayweather had a game plan, was forced to adjust, but maintained his cool. US policy could learn a lot from this simple insight, as policy at the moment is anything but composed. In theory, mixed messages and uncertainty can create tactical advantages by putting an opponent on his back foot, to extend the boxing metaphor. But the mixed messages now are so fundamental to the case that they are pretty hard to defend or even to follow, as the administration is reduced to an endless cycle of clarifications and amendments.

Let’s review the bidding. The first issue is the role that negotiations will ultimately play in resolving the current standoff. Following the missile test over Japan, the President tweeted:

First, a simple fact check. The Six Party Talks collapsed in 2008, and that was the last year that the US provided any assistance to the North. We did so in the context of tentative steps to disable the country’s nuclear program. The assumption that negotiations are useless is deeply engrained, including in the press. But as Mike Chinoy outlines in a pointed corrective, the history is a little more complicated.

President Trump’s animus might be directed at the Obama administration, but if so it is similarly off the mark. It didn’t take long for the Obama administration to get disenchanted with engaging the North Koreans. After several years of little progress, the so-called Leap Year Deal of February 29, 2012 was based on an aid-for-freeze quid-pro-quo. But the North Koreans blew it up—if the pun can be excused—with a “satellite” launch. Yes, the negotiation failed but were we worse off for trying? The US has had a handful of on-again, off-again back channel talks with the North Koreans under both Obama and Trump, as we should. But to say that we have been paying extortion money hardly characterizes the Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” which explicitly stated—in Robert Gates’ well-known expression—that the US was not going to “pay for the same horse twice.”

More significantly, the claim that “talking is not the answer” directly contradicts the strategy that Secretary Tillerson has carefully laid out to keep Beijing and the international community on board with our much-strengthened sanctions effort (On Tillerson’s strategy see here; on sanctions see here and here). Again, this is not a useful good cop-bad cop routine. It was a misstatement of the administration’s own approach that had to be immediately corrected. The task fell to Secretary Mattis, who did so with blunt alacrity (“we’re never out of diplomatic solutions”).

The second set of missteps has to do with alliance management. North Korea’s overriding strategic objective is to drive wedges between Washington and its two Northeast Asian alliance partners, Japan and Korea. The missile and nuclear programs are directly aimed at this goal, seeking to give the US pause about the costs of maintaining its defense commitments. The appropriate political response to this challenge is to reassure the allies and signal our resolve. Over the last ten days, Secretary Mattis has done yeoman’s work providing just such assurances. These included his pitch-perfect remarks on August 30 with South Korean Minister of Defense Song Young-Moo, the read-out of his call to Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, and most importantly, a fundamental restatement of the logic of the alliance and extended deterrence on September 3 following the nuclear test.

Not so the president. The first cluster of shocks to hit had to do with the KORUS. Following a tense meeting in Seoul at the end of August (Wendy Cutler here), the Washington Post broke the story that the White House was preparing plans to withdraw from the trade agreement altogether. Setting aside the issue of timing, there is again the question of the veracity of the claims being made about the agreement. Trade hawks on both the left and right have focused on the bilateral deficit, roughly $27 billion on goods trade (but with a $10 billion+ US surplus on the services account which tends to get ignored). The administration wanted to actually make the deficit a target of the negotiations. But as the Chamber of Commerce pointed out in a brief distributed to members, the slowdown in South Korean growth and exchange rate developments combined to cause a 22% fall in South Korean imports from the world in 2014-16. Against that base rate, the US actually held steady and probably as a result of the KORUS. In sum, the principle evidence for the anti-KORUS prosecution is almost entirely misleading.  

But the strategic context makes quarrelling about the KORUS much worse. The alliance is not just the mutual defense agreements and the infrastructure that have grown up around them; it encompasses the other networks that have developed between the two countries, including economic ones. Withdrawing from the KORUS will not only hurt US exporters, but have the effect of forcing South Korea into greater dependence on China, a relationship that Beijing has sadly abused. Again, members of his own team—including both Mattis and Cohn—see the risks and expressed doubts about the move. The business community is also on the case. Congress also weighed in to limit the damage in the form of a bipartisan letter from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) and Ranking Member Richard Neal (D-MA), and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) that argued strongly against withdrawal.

Next up was a dismissive tweet about the Moon Jae-in administration that was even more counterproductive (Amy Sorkin has a good dissection of the sequence at the New Yorker).  The tweet read:

Again, a quick fact check. As I pointed out in a series of posts (see here and here), the Moon administration has long since backed away from its early hopes with respect to engagement. The administration’s stance was hardly one of “appeasement,” however, as it rested on a firm position with respect to the nuclear question. Rather, the administration was simply trying to reopen channels that had been almost entirely closed under the last two conservative administrations, channels that Seoul should continue to try to reopen. As John Delury asks in a sensitive analysis of the domestic politics at 38North, what value is gained by the President of the United States hectoring his highly popular South Korean counterpart in public, precisely as the alliance is being tested? In this case, it was the NSC—in the form of telephone conversations between McMaster and Chung Eui-yong, the head of the presidential National Security Office, that were the channel for damage control. In addition, the two governments released a Joint Statement on the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group.

Finally, a brief word on the implied threat in this last tweet: that the North Koreans only understand force. As the “fire and fury” tweet has since demonstrated, threats to use force appear to have exactly the opposite effect than those intended. Since those tweets—and going back to the promise that North Korea will not get an ICBM capability in January—the President now has his own red-line problem. Credibility is deflating rapidly.

Secretary Tillerson has come under a lot of fire for his managerial approach to the State Department. But with respect to North Korea, he and his team have come up with about the best we can do: to maintain the deterrent, press the sanctions case vigorously, including through secondary sanctions as needed, try to keep China on board, and hold out the promise of a negotiated settlement. No one thinks that the chances of success are high, but implementing the strategy requires composure. We are not showing it.

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