On Twitter, President Trump dismissed the efforts of his own Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, by declaring that the man was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with “Little Rocket Man,” his pet name for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. At this point, most of us can only roll our eyes at Trump’s continued immaturity – the moniker “Little Rocket Man” sounds like something thought up by a seventh-grade schoolyard bully. Worse than the childish taunting, however, is the blatant political faux pas of dissing one’s own Secretary of State. Minimizing the importance of Tillerson’s efforts toward engaging with North Korea, regardless of their likelihood of success, will hurt the President’s entire foreign policy.
First of all, nations want to know with whom they are dealing. Does the Secretary of State truly represent the United States, or is he a background character? Signs that the President cares little about the efforts of the Secretary of State, or State Department diplomats in general, could spell geopolitical disaster. Why waste time negotiating with diplomats if the President is likely to overrule them at a whim? Now North Korea has little incentive to talk to Tillerson, and may decide not to talk at all. If the person with whom you have grown accustomed to dealing is now seen as irrelevant and outcast by his own administration, is it worth it trying to find a new emissary?
Letting Kim Jong Un’s minions deal with Tillerson, as opposed to Trump himself, was a way of letting the regime in Pyongyang save face. By forcing the infamous “hermit kingdom” to approach Trump himself, the White House may have overplayed its hand. Tillerson was a more neutral figure, and that neutrality may have been the key to sparking dialogue. By insisting that North Korea must deal with Donald Trump directly, we have set up a confrontation…and Kim Jong Un may prefer to go out in a “blaze of glory” than lose face by having to ask a loudmouth like Trump for terms.
Aside from the immediate threat of North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, Trump’s callous sidelining of Tillerson also damages relations with allies. As the world’s sole superpower, at least for the moment, the United States is often placed in the role of speaking for the Western world. Until Donald Trump came along, the U.S. enjoyed a position of international leadership. Already, Trump’s bombastic immaturity has eroded America’s image as a diplomatic power. When the President waves off the Secretary of State’s job as unimportant, the image becomes dangerously tarnished. Allies will no longer trust U.S. foreign policy, and consider it unreliable.
Not knowing whether they can trust the word of the Secretary of State, or even the President himself, other Western powers may abandon their deference to America and seek to create new international coalitions. Canada may realign itself with Britain, choosing to break with the United States over foreign policy confusion. NATO powers may begin looking for ways to guarantee their own security without the presence of the American military. While this may seem of little consequence to America itself, and may even be encouraged by pro-Trump isolationists, it could create long-term harms.
If America allows itself to become isolated, placed at arm’s length by its traditional allies, its future could turn bleak. Allies may discover that they do not need us as much as they used to. After all, the Cold War is long over. The West’s need for America’s overwhelming military might is a vestige of yesteryear. With the Global War on Terror requiring the use of intelligence agencies, targeted attacks, and “smart power” rather than massed infantry divisions and air armadas, European allies may begin to say “no, thank you” when Trump comes calling. If you can’t predict him or trust him, why deal with him?
Internally, Trump’s offhand dismissal of Rex Tillerson will further hurt his ability to recruit and retain high-quality cabinet secretaries. Already, the President must find a replacement for former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price…but who wants the job? Few men or women of means and talent will want a post from which they can be easily sidelined. And, as Trump only grows more controversial, fewer people will want to hitch their wagon to his administration. If Tillerson ends up resigning in disgust, will anyone of significant caliber truly want the thankless job of being Donald Trump’s new Secretary of State?
Trying to engage with North Korea is a difficult, maddening task, but the costs of failure are astronomical. War may be inevitable, but it must be avoided as much as possible. Brushing off Tillerson’s attempts at diplomacy send a frightening signal to the world that President Trump cares little for diplomacy, or attempting to save American troops and South Korean civilians from agonizing deaths. Every monkey wrench the President throws into the works brings us closer to war and further from a potential solution. If we must prepare for war, so be it. But we should never publicly repudiate attempts at negotiated peace and hasten the war that will likely result.