Column

Will Trump's 'Rocket Man' speech lead us to war?

The ostensible purpose of President Trump’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday was to explain to the world why “America First” is an idea other countries should embrace. It was to be “a deeply philosophical address,” a White House official promised. Instead, the speech will inevitably be remembered for just two words: “Rocket Man,” Trump’s derisive nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Never mind grand strategy. Trump made sure the media’s favorite soundbite would be a schoolboy taunt and a threat of mass annihilation.

“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” the president told the world’s diplomats. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

The problem with Trump’s threat wasn’t only the juvenile language he chose, or that it inevitably distracted attention from the rest of his message. His taunt, far from serving an underlying strategy, was probably counterproductive.

Ridiculing Kim Jong Un is "more likely to persuade North Korea to increase its nuclear weapons and missiles than limit them [or] give them up,” warned Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Successful diplomatic negotiators usually take pains to treat their adversaries with respect and provide them a dignified way to retreat from their original positions. That often means offering positive incentives as well as threats, carrots as well as sticks.

Trump didn’t do any of that. He said the only way for North Korea to defuse the crisis was to give up its entire nuclear program. He offered no guarantee that the regime would be secure if it took that risky step (although his secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has said the United States does not seek regime change). Trump made a maximum demand, added a maximum threat and tossed in a gratuitous insult.

That approach may have worked in New York real estate, but it’s less likely to succeed against a deeply suspicious sovereign state with nuclear weapons.

Oh, yes: sovereignty. That was supposed to be the president’s “deeply philosophical” theme. Trump called repeatedly for a world of “strong, sovereign nations” in which each country would defend its own interests — a universal version of “America First.”

“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” he promised. “We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideology.”

But he added an important caveat. He said every government has two “sovereign duties”: to refrain from threatening other countries, and to “respect the interests of their own people.”

And he listed countries that apparently don’t deserve all the benefits of sovereignty, because they’ve broken one of those rules.

One, of course, was North Korea, whose nuclear program threatens its neighbors. That’s an easy case.

But he also denounced Venezuela, because its socialist government “has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on [its] good people. … This situation is completely unacceptable.”

And he denounced Iran, not only for interfering in other countries, but also for repressing its own citizens.

“Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever,” he warned, and hinted, again, that the United States might walk away from the 2012 agreement under which Iran halted its nuclear program.

Sovereignty for me, in other words, but maybe not for thee.

In the case of Iran, Trump has now threatened to abandon a six-nation nuclear agreement his predecessor made, and added that a change of regime in Tehran would be a good idea, too. Why should North Korea expect better treatment? Those conflicting messages won’t increase Kim Jong Un’s interest in negotiating a deal.

Perhaps Trump’s real target, though, was China. The president’s strategy has been to press leader Xi Jinping to impose tough sanctions on North Korea, and to warn that war is inevitable if diplomacy fails. So far, it hasn't worked. Xi has politely promised cooperation, but in practice he’s acting as if he doesn’t think Trump will pull the trigger.

“China’s strategic priorities are just different from those of the United States,” Stewart M. Butler, a former State Department strategist, observed. “It’s hard to know how much more leverage we can get them to bring to bear.”

“Rocket Man” isn’t likely to impress Beijing, either. Insults are no longer their diplomatic style. They’re more interested in predictability and stability.

Trump may think he's backing North Korea and China into a corner, but he risks backing himself into one at the same time. If North Korea crosses the “red line” the president has drawn — putting a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile — his bluff will have been called. And then he will face two bad outcomes: Back down or go to war. If the result is war, a war the United States doesn’t want to fight, Tuesday's “Rocket Man” speech will be remembered as one of the steps that took us there.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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