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It is no secret that both China and Russia are opposed to the US-led international order and will dismantle as much of it as circumstances allow. There is, however, a worrying new trend. The Chinese foreign ministry recently refused to “quantify how closely China and Russia are cooperating on the North Korean nuclear issue . . . Just like China, Russia plays a pivotal role in maintaining global peace and stability . . . China is willing to strengthen its cooperation and coordination with Russia to jointly preserve peace and stability in the region and around the world.”

Trump delivered his maiden speech to the UN in September, a set piece intended to formally mark his introduction to the international community and clarify the Trump doctrine. He did achieve a measure of clarity in articulating his view of America’s global role, if not actual policy. Most important was his withdrawal from the global defence and spread of democracy. America will now lead by example, not international action. “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government . . . But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” This strong message of non-interference will be welcomed in Moscow and Beijing. Having stepped back from the universality of Western democracy, Trump’s trenchant critique of North Korea and Iran is no longer logically consistent with his own worldview. The implicit suggestion is actually that American non-intervention will be based on the caprice of Donald Trump, rather than any principle beyond “might is right”. So China and Russia can do as they wish, even if this falls foul of US values. In other words, America’s international relationships will be economically and militarily transactional, rather than based on values. Most surprisingly, given their mercurial involvement with North Korea, Trump thanked both Moscow and Beijing for their help in handling the crisis. Once again he conflated rhetoric with concrete policy outcomes. Exhorting the international community to “do more” is not the same as actually instituting workable deterrence in Korea or durable non-proliferation with Iran. His threat to “totally destroy North Korea” was another example of tough talk being confused with concrete red lines for North Korea or a roadmap to de-escalation. The Trump doctrine’s inward turn to focus on domestic renewal will ultimately mean pulling away from the post-war international system that America shaped and helped to enforce. Trump also answered the strategic question that must be foremost in Pyongyang and Seoul: “As President of the United States, I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” While such statements should worry America’s allies, unsurprisingly this appeared to be well received by the UN general assembly. Tragically, such outsourcing of American leadership ushers in a terrifying prospect for the Korean crisis, the cessation of nuclear proliferation more widely, and indeed the defence of liberal democracy.

Even if Trump does not accept the burden of leadership imposed by American primacy, there is little doubt that he is faced with an unenviable situation. America now has direct challenges to its security present on multiple fronts. Trump does not have the luxury of simply refashioning his conception of security to ignore the health of global democracy. The history of the 20th century should have taught him this. All these global crises are now so intertwined that solving any one issue will require geopolitical rather than regional solutions. Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan are now joined by the slow collapse of the Iranian nuclear deal and the not so slowly emerging security crisis in Asia. The failures of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” are readily apparent and the list of foreign policy challenges facing Trump is growing. In its declamatory form the Trump doctrine is a terrifying abrogation of leadership and vision. Hopefully in practice it will not reach the rhetorical threat of disengagement. First and foremost, America needs to establish a diplomatic dialogue with North Korea, if for no other purpose than to establish “red lines” about the use, development or transfer of nuclear capability. Unlike Obama’s catastrophic Syrian “red lines” there should be no ambiguity about whether these would be enforced. Beyond the tough talk, it remains to be seen whether Trump has the inclination or ability to pursue such a plan. America is losing ground to a host of regional and international challengers. This is the logical consequence of the Trump doctrine. A nuclear arms race in Korea is the beginning of that process. Who dares to guess where it will end?
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