BOSTON (CBS) – One of America’s greatest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, had a saying he used to describe his foreign policy philosophy when it came to dealing with hostile powers: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
President Trump and his advisors would have done well to remember Roosevelt’s wisdom in their handling – or rather, mishandling – of the North Korea situation.
Mr. Trump has the “big stick” part down cold, at least when it comes to the casual issuance of nuclear threats via tweet. But speaking softly – in the broader sense of letting diplomacy do its work, collaborating effectively with allies, and reading the tea leaves properly – seems not to be his strong suit.
Consider Thursday’s letter from the president to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cancelling the June 12 summit.
Mr. Trump wrote that he’s pulling the plug “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.”
That’s a reference to an angry reaction by North Korea to remarks by Vice President Mike Pence that threatened Jong Un with the fate of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi – executed by rebels in 2011 after military intervention by the West – if he doesn’t make a deal to denuclearize.
Sabre-rattling and insults might make sense if you share Mr. Trump’s belief that they helped bring Jong-un to the table, although more skeptical observers believe they put more pressure on South Korea than North Korea. But lobbing more of that invective into a situation that appeared to be heading into a sensitive diplomatic stage?
“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only the dialogue that matters,” wrote Mr. Trump in Thusday’s letter.
But in the same breath he’s back to the old tweet-taunting: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
If this strategy seems erratic and made up as it goes along, perhaps that’s because it is.
We’ve seen this movie before in the Obama administration’s disastrous handling of the Syrian crisis, which mixed optimistic but inept diplomacy with hollow threats about “red lines” that Syria couldn’t (but did) cross, topped off by credulous acceptance of phony assurances that they had disposed of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The Trump-era foreign policy m.o. – speak loudly, carry a big stick, and ignore the complicated ebb and flow of diplomacy – doesn’t seem to be working in Syria, Turkey, Russia/Crimea, China (when it comes to trade) or North Korea.
That Nobel Peace Prize may have to wait awhile.