Since the North Korean government seems hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, Trump’s goal may be less to persuade Kim to shift course than to get “China’s attention” and impress upon Beijing that “you’ve got to help us stop [the North Korean nuclear program] where it is at the very least [and] get to some negotiations,” Petraeus told CNN’s Jake Tapper at the Washington Ideas Forum, which is organized by The Atlantic.
Still, Petraeus, who was once under consideration for the position of secretary of state in the Trump administration, expressed misgivings about how far Trump had gone with the approach.
“There is something” to the “madman logic” that Richard Nixon famously employed, he said. “Before you get into a crisis, it’s not all that bad if the other side thinks you’re a little bit edgy. Nixon had [his Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger go tell the Soviets, ‘Hey you know Nixon’s under a lot of pressure. He has a drink after dinner. Be careful. Wall on eggshells around this guy.’ And they sort of did. You avoid getting into a crisis.”
But the strategy can go from being an asset to a liability in the midst of a crisis, he added. “The problem is, if you do get into a crisis, you don’t want the other side thinking that you’ve taken the slack out of the trigger already and you’re going to do something that otherwise might be irrational, because they may do it to you first. That’s where my concern is. The rhetoric has to be modulated.”
“Certainly some of the statements are not ones that I necessarily would have advised,” Petraeus noted, in an apparent reference to comments by Trump.
Petraeus suggested that China and the United States launch a “strategic dialogue” to clearly communicate what each side views as acceptable and unacceptable ways to address North Korea’s nuclear program. He argued that China has a major interest in halting and rolling back that program since the failure to do so could spark a massive military buildup in Asia as other countries seek to protect themselves.
“When does South Korea ask for its own nuclear weapons” either through the return of U.S. nuclear weapons that were withdrawn in 1991 or through its own nuclear program? Petraeus asked. “What about Japan, which has already reinterpreted its [pacifist] constitution to allow at least collective self-defense with allies, [including] the U.S. … And then what happens with Vietnam? Do they need a nuclear program? The proliferation aspects to this, the strategic implications, are quite stark.”
Petraeus acknowledged that it’s unclear whether Chinese leaders have taken Trump’s message to heart; the latest statistics show that Chinese trade with North Korea actually rose in August to its highest level since December 2016. That’s “not the direction that we were hoping to go,” he said, but “this is going to play out over months.” The problem, however, is that the Trump administration may not have that kind of time. It takes a long time for economic sanctions to have an impact on their target. And North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is advancing rapidly. As Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, “Whether it’s three months, or six months, or 18 months,” North Korea will “soon” develop the capability to reach the United States with a nuclear-tipped long-range missile. “We ought to conduct ourselves as though it is just a matter of time and a matter of a very short time.”