Why Trump’s war of words might lead to an actual war with North Korea

Trump's reliance on retired generals coupled with angry tweets are no replacement for diplomacy.

North Korea and the United States traded escalating threats, with President Donald Trump threatening Pyongyang "with fire and fury like the world has never seen." CREDIT Photo/Lee Jin-man
North Korea and the United States traded escalating threats, with President Donald Trump threatening Pyongyang "with fire and fury like the world has never seen." CREDIT Photo/Lee Jin-man

Tensions are reaching a historical high between the United States and North Korea, and the nature of the Trump administration is rapidly making things worse.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump threatened North Korea, but the way he did it was strange. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the U.S. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” he said in an allegedly off-the-cuff remark.

Setting a red line at “threats” to the United States isn’t clear — and just hours later, North Korean state media announced that Pyongyang is weighing an attack on Guam, a U.S. territory with considerable military bases. As if Trump’s vague threat wasn’t bad enough, the composition of the Trump administration, which is relying increasingly on retired generals and still has several key diplomatic posts vacant, is increasing the likelihood of conflict.

Trump has stocked several key posts with military commanders. In addition to Gen. John Kelly, who is the new White House chief, Gen. Mark S. Inch was named as the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and has Gen. James Mattis (so recently retired that he needed a Congressional waiver before he could lead the Pentagon). He also replaced Gen. Mike Flynn – who lasted as his National Security Advisor for three weeks before having to resign – with another general, H.R. McMaster.

“There’s nothing wrong with generals serving in the White House – these are all fine men,” said Thomas Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, who emphasized that he was speaking in a personal capacity. “I’m less worried about the fact that these generals are in the White House than the fact that the public is so relieved about it, given the nature of this administration.”

Appointing generals to cabinet posts is not unique to Trump. For example, out of concern that “he didn’t know enough about foreign affairs,” former President Barack Obama also chose a four-star general, James L. Jones, as his first national security advisor, said Nichols. “This has become an almost automatic reaction, to use generals and admirals as a shortcut to legitimacy – and I think that is not in keeping with our Constitutional traditions.”

“Generals in the White House are a kind of a Rorschach test. If you don’t like the president’s foreign policy, you’ll blame it on militaristic generals. If you don’t like the president, you’ll hope that the generals are secret pacifists,” he said.

While Trump increasingly leans on retired generals to right the wayward ship that is the White House — that’s largely how Kelly’s appointment is seen — the extent to which he will actually defer to them remains unknown, said Nichols.

“There’s no way to know that…There’s no reason to think that he’s going to listen to a general more than he’s going to listen to a businessman,” he said.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Trump has yet to fill a large number of diplomatic posts. Notably, the U.S. currently does not have an ambassador in South Korea; Marc Knapper is acting as interim Charge d’Affaires there. The United States also does not have an assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the State Department or an assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department.

Under Obama, over a quarter of U.S. diplomatic posts were vacant, although that is attributed to partisan feuds in the Senate, which held up his nominees. With Republicans having the majority in the Senate, Trump faces fewer obstacles for his nominations, yet roughly the same number of U.S. diplomatic posts (27 percent, not counting the five countries with which the U.S. is currently not exchanging ambassadors) remain vacant, with no nominees for the posts. Over a dozen nominees await confirmation.

Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, told ThinkProgress that with the Trump administration, it’s not so much the reliance on generals but the absence of diplomacy that is the issue.

“It’s more what’s missing from Trump’s approach, and that is the voices calling for diplomacy and a full bench at the State Department…Secretary Tillerson has said some of the right things, but his remarks are overshadowed by Trump’s threats.” said Davenport.

The president, she said, is on a “dangerous” path with his war of words, which she said could lead to “a minor incident that could get blown out of proportion and leading to a conflict.”

“North Korea typically responds to threats with threats, so fiery rhetoric from Pyongyang threatening to attack the United States is unsurprising… but the United States should be seeking off-ramps and trying to deescalate this conflict rather than egging on North Korea,” said Davenport.

“In addition to Trump’s comments yesterday, in addition to the bellicose rhetoric, there was a sort of a vague, undefined threat that increases the chances of miscalculation…these ill-advised, ill-thought-through statements increase the risk of the situation,” she said, adding that it’s important to keep in mind that Kim Jong-un “knows full well that a first strike by North Korea, using a nuclear weapon, would illicit a devastating response by the United States and likely lead to the downfall of his regime.”

“When I look at Trump’s approach to North Korea there’s a clear diplomacy deficit, that is manifest in missed opportunities to reach out to North Korea,” said Davenport, noting that an the Trump’s “failure to appoint an ambassador to South Korea is very troublesome.”

That Trump seems to have more generals that diplomats around him worries Nichols as well, especially when he blindsides his own team with statements such as Tuesday’s “fire and fury” threat.

“This is not a real crisis yet – if this is a dress rehearsal for a crisis it shows that we’re not ready yet,” said Nichols.