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Do the hard work of diplomacy

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Words matter, especially when the nations doing the talking have nuclear weapons at their disposal. The wide variance of statements made by senior members of the Trump administration, including by President Trump, is a recipe for miscalculation soup, reported US News.

For the last several weeks, U.S. messaging on the situation in North Korea has ranged from Trump's belligerent tweets ("[North Korea] is looking for trouble") to a steady and measured interview by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster ("We're working together with our allies and partners, and with the Chinese leadership, to develop a range of options"); and from a transparent warning by Secretary Jim Mattis ("effective and overwhelming" response to using nukes) to the completely opaque utterances from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer ("You're not going to see him telegraphing how he's going").

The sum of this cacophony is an unclear signal being sent to the regime in Pyongyang. In order for the administration to get its North Korea policy back on the rails, it first needs to get a hold of its strategic messaging.

For example, what exactly does Vice President Pence mean when he says, "The era of strategic patience is over?" Is future U.S. policy going to exhibit a less well thought-out strategy, be less patient or both? While such bluster may make for good sound bites to a domestic political base primed for 'toughness,' it does little to convince our allies in the region that the United States is not suddenly going to lurch forward into unjustifiable and costly unilateral military action. At worst, these confusing statements may make Kim Jong Un believe that a U.S. military strike is incoming – which could, in turn, spur him to take disastrous and irrevocable actions that he might not otherwise take.

Concerns over signaling have always had significant real world ramifications. For decades, the greatest Cold War minds thought hard about how to successfully deter nuclear armed actors and prevent a global catastrophe. While "being crazy like a fox" might make the other side think twice about escalating, it also means that they might not take your de-escalating signals seriously. In other words, being unpredictable cuts both ways: As CUNY political scientist Roseanne McManus points out, the other side can't rely on the truthfulness of stated preferences.

This deficit of trust makes it harder for allies to read American intentions, which in turn makes it harder for diplomatic negotiations to be taken seriously. Diplomacy is urgently necessary if the U.S. and its allies, along with China, are to avoid an incomprehensibly bad outcome. Unfortunately, it is precisely timely diplomacy, alongside the judicious use of stern warnings, that has been absent amid all of the administration's vague saber rattling in northeast Asia.

Ultimately, there are no good options when dealing with North Korea – as President Trump apparently learned recently over dinner with China's President Xi Jinping. Any potential solution is going to require years and years of work and a fortuitous policy window that none can yet foresee; the administration's assertions that diplomacy is exhausted and patience is up are unacceptable in any case, much less after three months of representing America on the world stage. The last thing the world needs is unnecessary escalation and nuclear brinksmanship on the Korean Peninsula – a game with almost pure downside risk for everyone involved with the exception of the Kim regime.

In short, why risk a mushroom cloud over Tokyo or Seoul – cities with millions of innocent inhabitants – when the best we can hope for is a military stalemate? The smarter way forward means doing the hard work of diplomacy; while that won't produce appealing sound bites replete with tough talk, it is the best way for America to live our values and push our interests on the world stage.

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Tags: u.s., North Korea
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