Pundits love to put down American voters. And yet, voters have an amazing tendency to elect the person they need in the moment, even if it is not at all obvious at the time.
Donald Trump is a brash, sometimes crass, businessman who minces no words and follows up his promises with action. That’s a far cry from the intellectuals who have maintained the Oval Office in recent years, men who have used words like “strategic patience” and “leading from behind” to define their foreign policy. Their ways did not work. They had no framework by which they could understand, much less combat, realpolitik and raw ambition.
Rogue regimes, terrorist organizations and authoritarian governments thrived in such a foreign policy vacuum. While the United States was planning ten moves ahead, despots were advancing turn-by-turn across the chessboard. Until, that is, President Trump came in and chucked the chessboard out the window.
During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to bring fresh thinking to foreign policy problems that had long plagued the United States. Rather than buy in the Wilsonian idea that America maintains a providential mission to make the world safe for democracy, Trump has made decisions based on a narrow rubric: How do I make America great again?
When it came to the intractable problem of a nuclear North Korea his answer was blunt: Stare into the eyes of evil and prove we won’t back down.
During North Korea’s most recent spate of missile tests Trump promised that continued threats to the United States “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” When the North Korean leader tweeted about having the nuclear launch button on his desk, Trump tweeted: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform [Kim Jong Un] that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Those weren’t just idle words. As Syria’s Bashar al Assad has quickly learned, when Trump draws a red line, to cross it means to face the full complement of the United State’s military arsenal.
But Trump wasn’t just bluster. While pundits were busy lambasting his coziness with China’s President Xi Jinping during a state visit last year, the president was successfully courting a partner to pressure North Korea. The diplomatic gamble paid off, resulting in the most stringent sanctions regime than ever before.
The assertive posture coupled with strategic alliance-building produced real diplomatic progress for the first time in a decade. Things have moved so fast that leaders of North and South Korea agreed on Friday to work to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and to pursue tripartite talks with the United States to declare an end to the Korean War, two goals that not long ago appeared unachievable. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham reports on just how incredible this breakthrough is:
“The speed with which the shift has happened, after decades of stalemate, is a testament to the efficacy of Trump’s stratagem. Not only is there progress toward ending the war, but North Korea consented to language about a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
While Trump has tended to pick fights with allies, his work with China to pressure North Korea deserves particular notice. He cultivated Xi Jinping and persuaded China to use its muscle to further isolate North Korea and force it to the negotiating table. …
The statement from the leaders on Friday leaves many details unresolved, but it is a huge step forward. Just a few months ago, many of foreign policy’s wise men and women were wringing their hands, afraid Trump would start a nuclear war. Instead, he has done what they couldn’t, and nearly achieved peace between the Koreas.”
If anything, this shows the limits of so-called “wise men.” In reality, our nation’s capitol has been plagued by stale thinking which has been bounced around the Washington echo chamber for so long that it has become accepted as immutable truth. This presidency has laid bare how wrongheaded that approach is by bringing different minds and fresh thinking to address what were once thought to be intractable problems.
“Clearly, credit goes to President Trump,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Seoul. “He’s been determined to come to grips with this from Day 1.”
Determination and grit. Two qualities that the American voter wanted in a leader and saw in Donald Trump, even while the pundit class was shaking their head. And it’s the two qualities that is closer to solving one of the United State’s most significant foreign policy threats. Credit to President Trump, indeed.