So far, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy consists of declaring that America’s patience has run out, refusing to negotiate, hinting at preventive war, and hoping that China bails it out. In January, Trump—who is perpetually learning things that most other people know and then congratulating himself for having discovered them—announced that China has “total control over North Korea.” This month, after meeting China’s leader, he announced that “it’s not so easy” for Beijing to force Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program. Still, he tweeted that “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea.”
Barely anyone else does. Barely anybody familiar with the relationship between the two countries believes China’s leaders will make North Korea denuclearize just because Trump tells them to. Yes, China wants to calm Trump down so he doesn’t start World War III. And yes, China considers North Korea both embarrassing and infuriating, the geopolitical equivalent of a childhood friend who keeps borrowing money and getting drunk in front of your wife and kids. Nonetheless, China has excellent reasons not to do as Trump says.
China wants stability on its border. The United States is fond of violently bringing down dictators half a world away, but when those dictatorships turn into failed states, it’s their neighbors that suffer the consequences. Beijing doesn’t want to experience what Jordan endured after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Trump is demanding that China pressure North Korea—perhaps by cutting off its food and fuel until Kim Jong Un scuttles his nuclear program. But China is less afraid of a North Korean nuclear explosion than a North Korean political implosion, which would send refugees cascading across its border. China also fears that North Korea’s collapse will lead to a reunification of the Korean Peninsula on South Korean and American terms. That could leave U.S. troops on China’s border for the first time since 1950, when Beijing went to war to chase them away.
Trump isn’t wrong to want North Korea’s nuclear program to end. He’s not wrong to want North Korea to end. It is, after all, the closest thing to hell on earth. Ending its nuclear program would be a blessing, and freeing its 25 million people would be the greatest advance of human freedom since the end of the Cold War. But if the Trump administration is to have any chance of moving in that direction, it must begin thinking not only about what China can do for America but what America can do for China.
The Chinese aren’t suckers. They won’t strangle an ally just because Trump promises not to start a trade war that would hurt America as much as them. The most tempting carrot Trump could dangle would be a promise that, if Korea reunifies, America won’t move its troops into what is currently the North. The Chinese might not believe those promises. After all, the Russians think America promised not to move U.S. troops into East Germany after that country reunified. But the Trump administration could at least begin a conversation about how to alleviate Chinese fears of reunification. It could support warmer relations between Seoul and Beijing. As part of a deal, it could even withdraw the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system it began deploying in South Korea this spring, a system the Chinese fear is aimed at much at them as against Pyongyang.
The problem is that this type of thinking runs directly contrary to the mentality Republicans inherited from the Cold War. As Trump’s foreign policy has become more conventionally conservative, he seems to have embraced the conventional conservative myth about Ronald Reagan: that Reagan brought down the Soviet empire through ideological pressure and unyielding hostility. Like the George W. Bush administration, which thought it could curb Iran’s nuclear program by branding Tehran a member of the “axis of evil” (a riff on “evil empire”), threatening “preemptive” war, and refusing to negotiate until Tehran stopped enriching uranium, the Trump administration is now ruling out direct negotiations with Pyongyang and openly threatening a military strike. Last week Mike Pence, who loves comparing Trump to Reagan, stared fiercely across the DMZ while remembering a youthful visit to the Berlin Wall.
This is horrendous policymaking based on historical ignorance. Yes, Reagan built up America’s military, aided anti-communist regimes and rebels, and morally condemned the U.S.S.R. But by 1984, Reagan’s genuine terror of nuclear war (sparked in part by movies about the subject), and his concern that his warmonger reputation might imperil his reelection, had led him to shift his rhetoric. That January, 15 months before Mikhail Gorbachev took over the Soviet Union, Reagan said in a speech that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. “should always remember that we do have common interests and the foremost among them is to avoid war and reduce the level of arms.” When Vice President Bush travelled to Moscow for the funeral of Gorbachev’s predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, the White House instructed him to tell the new leader that “We should seek to rid the world of the threat or use of force.” When Reagan met Gorbachev in 1985, he told him, “I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.” By 1987, Reagan had signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the first agreement of the Cold War to actually destroy nuclear weapons. This was two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Charles Krauthammer was still calling Gorbachev “Khrushchev with a tailor.”
Reagan didn’t force Gorbachev to release Eastern Europe from Moscow’s grip by refusing to negotiate and threatening war. Quite the contrary. By making America appear less threatening, he helped convince Gorbachev that the U.S.S.R. could safely relinquish its Eastern European buffer. Reagan himself said, “I might have helped him [Gorbachev] see that the Soviet Union had less to fear from the West than he thought, and that the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe wasn’t needed for the security of the Soviet Union.” In the words of longtime Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin, “If Reagan had stuck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986 … Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who doesn’t want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense.”
The analogy isn’t perfect, of course. Even if China wanted Korea’s reunification, Xi Jinping has less influence over Kim Jong Un than Gorbachev had over Erich Honecker. And given its booming economy, Beijing can afford to subsidize its North Korean ally far more easily than Moscow could afford to prop up its clients in Eastern Europe.
It may be that there’s not much America can do to change China’s calculus. But if the Trump administration wants to have any chance, it needs to allay Beijing’s fears about a future without Kim Jong Un. That means making the United States appear less threatening, not more so.
It would help if Donald Trump discovered the real history of the end of the Cold War. But that might require him to read.