Jennifer Mustapha is an assistant professor of political science at Huron University College at Western. She researches and teaches in the area of security politics with a geographic focus on East and Southeast Asia.
There is little doubt that recent actions by U.S. President Donald Trump have contributed to the current diplomatic thaw between North and South Korea. But this is very different from saying that Mr. Trump actually deserves to take credit for it. In fact, his contributions to the current diplomatic détente are largely accidental. As much as the Trump administration’s security disposition has acted as a catalyst in the lessening tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang, it could have just as easily escalated the tensions between them. In the worst-case scenario, Mr. Trump’s bombast and disregard for the prevailing regional security architecture could have caused the outbreak of a nuclear war. Quite simply, we need to stop giving Mr. Trump so much credit for what is happening because it prolongs the fiction of benevolent U.S. leadership in East Asia and plays down the very real destabilizing possibilities of U.S. power in the region.
The security landscape in East Asia is often described as a “hub and spokes” model of regional stability: a sort of bicycle wheel with the U.S. in the middle – the “hub” – and its bilateral security relations forming the “spokes” that lead to each country on the outer rim. As this metaphor suggests, the wheel can still function if a few spokes bend (or break), but a wheel always needs a hub. This way of thinking about East Asian security can be useful – notably in its emphasis on the enduring importance of the U..S presence in the region. But its central flaw resides in the way it underestimates the significance of the East Asian actors themselves. In other words, the “hub and spokes” model tells us nothing of their strategic goals, their domestic politics or their relationships with each other. This is problematic for several reasons.
First, there is a tendency to look at and talk about East Asia solely from the point of view of U.S. security interests. This is a flawed approach because it fails to tell the whole story. It is also why Mr. Trump’s vitriolic threats toward Kim Jong-un, whom Mr. Trump referred to as “Little Rocket Man” on multiple occasions, were so shocking to those who pay attention to the region. That kind of rhetoric showed a complete disregard for America’s own military allies in East Asia, who would have surely borne the collateral brunt of Mr. Trump’s threatened “fire and fury.” Essentially, Mr. Trump was communicating a lack of care for South Korean or Japanese citizens who would be killed in a conventional war or incinerated in a nuclear exchange. This is Mr. Trump’s largest “contribution” to the current situation: his apparent willingness to completely disregard America’s long-standing bilateral security relationships with key players in the region, and the lives of those who live there.
Second, through such a singular focus on American actions and interests in the commentary on this issue, there has been a tendency to ignore the domestic political contexts and regional relationships in which these events are playing out. Since the ouster of former president Park Geun-hye, the government of Moon Jae-in has been making a concerted effort to chart a different path for South Korea’s relations with both the U.S. and North Korea. The unified Olympic team and the recent diplomatic talks between North and South, though significant and worthy of attention, are less surprising if we had been paying attention to Korean domestic politics all along. The same can be said for China’s muted response on all fronts and President Xi Jinping’s seeming willingness to quietly play the different sides. And Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s relative avoidance of diplomatic involvement in all of this makes sense if we consider the domestic stakes of Japan’s worsening security relations with the U.S. alongside desires to improve Japanese trade relations with China. A consideration of the regional and domestic contexts also helps to explain the actions of Mr. Kim himself, who has suddenly been presented with a golden opportunity to step back from nuclear brinkmanship in a way that does not require him to show weakness through any obvious capitulation to U.S. pressure.
Finally, in the face of a suddenly unstable U.S. security presence, it is arguably the regional actors themselves who have been the most rational players in all of this. Mr. Moon should probably be given most of the credit for the North-South summit and for bringing Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim together, and not the other way around. Officially though, Mr. Moon will continue to give Mr. Trump all the credit because the entire region benefits if U.S. power in the region goes back to being steady and predictable.
If we consider the revolving door of leadership in the U.S. State Department over the past year, and the confusion and mixed messages from the highest levels of U.S. diplomacy on these issues, there is very little evidence that Mr. Trump has been playing some sort of complex strategic game of multilevel chess with the long-term goal of peace on the Korean peninsula. In fact, the suspension of disbelief that is required for that particular take is considerable. A much more obvious explanation is that Mr. Trump’s fiery rhetoric toward Mr. Kim was just another part of his ongoing MAGA theatrics that are mostly geared toward his own domestic audience – but on which millions of innocent East Asian lives were gambled.