The saga of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its battle group serves as a good example of all that is wrong with the Trump administration’s conduct of foreign policy.
Since before Chinese President Xi Jinping met with President Trump in Florida on 6th April 2017 President Trump and his officials have been talking about the US taking unilateral action if China did not move to stop development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
After President Xi left Florida, with rumours circulating that North Korea was about to conduct a sixth nuclear test, more threats of unilateral action poured out of the US.
It is important to say that they did not come just from the President. They also came from various other officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence (who appeared to repeat them during a visit to South Korea), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the President’s National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, and the President’s spokesman, Sean Spicer.
Articles also appeared in the media – clearly sourced from Trump administration officials, including an incendiary one published by NBC – which appeared to threaten that the US would launch a pre-emptive strike to prevent North Korea conducting a nuclear test unless China acted to prevent it.
The threats created an atmosphere of crisis, and as North Korea’s national holiday – the ‘Day of the Sun’ – approached the Chinese government warned of war.
Central to all these threats, and appearing to give force to them, were reports that the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its escort ship were steaming towards North Korea, with some reports claiming that some US warships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles were already no more than 300 km from the site of the pending North Korean nuclear test.
Though these reports about the Carl Vinson went on for days, no official of the Trump administration contradicted them. Thus when the US dropped its biggest bomb – the MOAB (“Mother of all Bombs”) on ISIS in Afghanistan – this together with the deployment of the Carl Vinson and its escorting warships to the Korean Peninsula was taken as a warning to North Korea – and China – that the US stood ready to act unilaterally if there was a North Korean nuclear test.
It now turns out that all these threats when they were made were hollow because the Carl Vinson and its battle-fleet, instead of sailing towards North Korea to launch a strike against it, was actually sailing away from North Korea, to conduct exercises near Australia. The National Interest has provided a time-line that sets out the details of the deception.
Needless to say, when this fact became known, it exposed the Trump administration to deserved ridicule.
The Trump administration has since tried to repair the damage with claims that US submarines armed with cruise missiles are in fact located close to the North Korean coast, and that the Carl Vinson and its fleet, having steamed away from North Korea, is now steaming back there again. However the damage to the Trump administration’s credibility, and to that of the US, has now been done.
What makes this episode even more absurd is that those who were supposed to be intimidated by all this – the Chinese, the Russians and almost certainly the North Koreans – undoubtedly knew where the Carl Vinson was all along.
The Chinese and the Russians definitely have the means to keep track of the movements of a US carrier fleet via satellite and other means. After all in the case of the Russians they have been doing this very thing routinely ever since the middle years of the Cold War.
It beggars belief that the Russians did not know where the Carl Vinson actually was even as the Trump administration was pretending it was steaming towards Korea, and it is only slightly less incredible that the Chinese didn’t know where it was either.
The North Koreans do not have the same means of global surveillance that the Chinese and the Russians have. However it is surely likely that they were being kept informed by the Chinese and the Russians of the Carl Vinson’s movements. The Chinese and the Russians would have had a compelling interest to tell them this, if only to dissuade them from doing something stupid, such as launching a pre-emptive strike because of fears the Carl Vinson was steaming towards them, when it was actually steaming away.
I was struck watching the parade in Pyongyang during the ‘Day of the Sun’ how relaxed Kim Jong-un looked even as talk of imminent war reached fever pitch. Perhaps the reason he looked so relaxed was because he knew that instead of steaming towards him the Carl Vinson was actually steaming away from him.
I recently said that the first law of international diplomacy is not to bluff China, because the bluff is certain to be called. It makes even less sense to bluff China in a situation where China knows it is being bluffed. That is a recipe not just for humiliation but for ridicule, which is what the Trump administration is reaping now.
The danger in this sort of behaviour is that not only has the US lost face in a region where face preeminently matters, but it has done so in a way that may actually increase the risk of something going catastrophically wrong.
Kim Jong-un, young and inexperienced as he is, and surrounded by advisers who may be too frightened of him and too much in awe of him to counsel him wisely, may now think that any move the US threatens against him is a bluff, and this may embolden him to take increasingly reckless steps without calculating the US’s likely responses correctly.
More pertinently, President Trump may feel that after this debacle he has to take forceful action against North Korea if he is to preserve whatever credibility he has left with Beijing and Pyongyang. That may lead him to do reckless and dangerous things against North Korea which are objectively unwarranted.
The blame for this debacle rests in part with President Trump but mostly with his National Security Adviser General McMaster. He presumably was aware of where the Carl Vinson actually was, and as the President’s National Security Adviser it was his job not only to keep the President informed, but to advise the President of the folly of a bluff which was certain to be called. Not only does he seem not to have done so, but on the contrary he actively colluded in a bluff which has brought the US nothing but humiliation and shame.
The damage done from this affair is considerable but not in my opinion irreparable. In spite of everything there still seems to be goodwill on the part of the Chinese and the Russians towards a new and inexperienced President, who they probably like more as a person than they did his aloof and arrogant predecessor, Barack Obama.
If the President draws back and starts listening to good advice the Chinese and the Russians will help him save face, whilst warning Kim Jong-un not to push his luck too far. Yesterday’s UN Security Council Statement warning North Korea against any further ballistic missile or nuclear tests is a sign of this.
However if that is to happen the President has to change the way his chaotic administration is behaving. Above all he has to start reaching out to and getting advice from proper foreign policy professionals, of whom there are still many in the US of a realist mindset who mean him well and who are willing to advise him.
In addition he needs to be less in awe of the men in uniform like General McMaster that he has surrounded himself with. Whatever their competence as soldiers, or their managerial skills, the events of the last three weeks show that they do not have the knowledge or understanding of international policy to advise him properly about how diplomacy is conducted.
The alternative is for things to go on as they are. In that case things will just go on going from bad to worse, until something really bad happens.
Meanwhile, as things stand, the foreign policy of the Trump administration does not look incoherent as some say. It looks a train-wreck.