By Viral Awesome with Contributions from M.D Balousek
When it comes to intractable problems on the international stage, few countries command more attention than nuclear-armed North Korea, the despotic regime in East Asia that is situated at a crossroads between the world’s major economic and military powers and that threatens world peace and stability on a regular basis with bellicose rhetoric and provocative nuclear testing.
A thorn in the sides of US presidents for many years, the regime has survived all attempts to undermine it thus far and, despite repeated promises to follow through on promised agreements, continues to thumb its finger at international norms and agreements.
Now, of course it can be argued, that the United States often will still push regime change even when a country will follow it’s guidelines, like in the case of Libya.
The Clinton administration made some progress with Kim Jong il, the father of current dictator Kim Jong un, though the agreements reached during this period all came to naught as the situation quickly unraveled with the Bush administration’s assertion of an “Axis of Evil” following the September 11th terror attacks in New York City and Washington, DC.
Now, with Republican President Donald Trump, we are seeing a renewed bellicose approach to North Korea and fiery rhetoric to back it up. Gone are the days of the “strategic patience” proffered by the Obama administration and in its place is a confrontational, some might call reckless, style of dealing with the North. It would seem like Donald Trump is pioneering a new way of handling America’s opponents, or is he? What if, rather than an aberration from the normal approach, we told you that Donald Trump is merely falling in the same style of Republican leaders from the past?
A lot of attention has been paid to the style and rhetoric Donald Trump has issued in recent months with regard to North Korea, but few people are paying attention to its substance because therein is where the similarity is found. Donald Trump’s hardline approach is nothing new and has been tried in the past, with success, by prior US Presidents such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and even George W. Bush to some extent. In the cases of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan we see closer analogs because they were dealing with nation states while George W. Bush largely grappled with an amorphous, international organization.
Prior to his tenure as President of the United States, Richard Nixon was perhaps one of the biggest anti-communist campaigners in the country. Few politicians advocated as hardline an approach as Richard Nixon did with regard to the Soviet Union and China and, as was demonstrated in Vietnam, a determination to undermine communist regimes wherever they may be.
Yet, upon entering office, Nixon initiated detente with the Soviet Union and made his famous visit to China to meet Chairman Mao, a despot by any stretch of the term who could give the Kims lessons in murder and social destruction. Making peace with the Soviet Union, or at least toning things down a bit, was an almost unheard of move by a Republican that had made his career on anti-communist rhetoric. But not only did this move by Nixon ease world tensions but also led to a period of friendly relations between the two countries rather than nuclear war. It is hard to imagine how close the world was to total destruction, so Nixon’s efforts at avoiding such a calamity are to admired in hindsight. Nixon’s tough as nails approach prior to getting elected may have made him a fearful politician in the eyes of the Soviets, but Nixon’s pragmatic approach to having a relationship with the Soviet Union probably did more for peace on a global scale in this era than anything else.
The meeting between Mao and Nixon on his famous visit to China is perhaps one of the most shocking moments in international relations. Mao and his regime were world pariahs at this time even with their “allies” the Soviet Union. Taking advantage of the emerging Sino-Soviet split, Nixon ventured to China to meet with its leadership and forge a new relationship. Prior to Nixon’s trip to China the US recognized the government on Taiwan as the legitimate representative of China in the United Nations. In 1979, seven years after his visit, China was not only open to the world but also holding its seat in the United Nations.
Analysts agree that Nixon’s visit to China had monumental implications for the development of relations between both countries and even the phrase “Nixon goes to China” implies making a change of monumental proportions when compared to past rhetoric or beliefs. Later, when Gorbachev was attempting to reform the Soviet Union, President Reagan again took a hardline stance against the Soviets, leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc according to some analysts. Reagan’s hot-cold approach to relations with the Soviet Union were buoyed by his history of harsh, anti-communist rhetoric but no one implied he wasn’t sincere in his efforts or that he wasn’t committed to the ideas of America. Indeed, like Nixon, Reagan had a knack for couching the terms of peace in the language of American interests.
It would seem that Republican officials have an advantage over their Democratic opponents in this area.
Some think it has been because Democrats (though perhaps wrongly), have been accused of being weak in foreign policy, or at least adverse to military solutions to conflicts. This could have been for a number of a reasons, Cold War Propaganda against more liberal or left-wing portions of intelligentsia being among them. It is believed that the previous Republican presidents can then make peaceful solutions more palatable to the populace and political elites as a result of this perception.
One of of the main criticisms of Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong un revolves around the human rights question and, indeed, one of the first questions President Trump fielded at his press conference after the meeting was about Otto Warmbier, the DPRK-detained US student that died from injuries suffered in a North Korean jail and who made headlines around the world. These same concerns followed Nixon in China and Mao’s record, one that is still far more readily available to us for examination, is one that is filled with horror and tyranny. But what if the United States, on purely moral grounds, had refused to deal with China? What if, instead, we continued the isolation of China and, in partnership with the Soviet Union, continued to box them out of the international system? Indeed, this has been the approach with North Korea and it has led to a regime of horrors the likes of which this world has probably not seen since the Nazis. Is the price of dialogue so high that the peace of the world can be staked on silence? Whatever your political persuasion may be, Donald Trump’s moves with regard to North Korea are no different than his predecessors. Let’s hope some of the results are equally as positive for the world scene.