Joining me to discuss the foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration are Susan Glasser of POLITICO and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker.
Evan, you began this week covering President Trump and his engagement with North Korea. You wrote a piece called Big Button, Small President. What does this brinksmanship mean for U.S. foreign policy?
EVAN OSNOS: Well, the sort of personalization of the conflict is the real gamechanger here. When I was in Pyongyang last fall, they told me quite clearly, members of the government, that they had noticed that the president had not given Kim Jong-un a nickname. This was before “Rocket Man,” this was before it became such a personalized dynamic. They thought that meant something. They thought that was intentional. Clearly since then, the president has adopted a much more pointed, specific, in many ways insulting way of talking about the North Korean leader.
So when the North Koreans do a provocation ‒ and look, let’s be clear, they do provocations all the time ‒ you can either respond by trying to maintain the stature of the United States and say we’re a country that’s above that, we’re not going to get into a tit for tat, or you could turn it into a sort of schoolyard squabble. And unfortunately, that’s the track we’ve gone down. It gives a lot of diplomats cause for concern.
MR. COSTA: Susan, what does it mean for Kim Jong-un back home on the domestic front?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, you know, what is driving Kim Jong-un to the table? Is it the uncertainty about President Trump and what the American intentions are right now toward his country? Certainly, the continued tweeting from here in Washington suggests that might be part of the factor. The other factor is that Kim has shown with this series of missile tests he’s going to be negotiating, if he does come to the table, from a position of much more strength than he was previously.
And I also think that it was notable this week that he seemed to be trying to peel away the South Koreans from the United States, from their allies. President Trump in his first year in office has made it very clear in a variety of ways that alliances, multilateral institutions, bilateral relationships, like that with South Korea, are not his top priority. He’s an “America first,” unilateralist kind of a guy. And I imagine that is also factoring into the North Koreans’ calculation right now.
MR. COSTA: Evan, real quick on the North Korean question and their engagement right now with South Korea ahead of the Olympics there, is this a real thaw?
MR. OSNOS: Well, this is the possibility for real improvement, but it’s really early steps. The fact that South Korea has brought North Korea to the table is a sign that we may ‒ there may be an opening here to get North Korea obviously to participate in the Olympic games, perhaps to consider talking about their program.
But as Susan pointed out, the crucial juncture is that you’ve got South Korea and the United States moving in somewhat different directions at the moment. South Korea wants to get to the table, they want negotiations; the president has indicated he’s not willing to do that. So the president has sort of isolated himself in the last week or so by departing from where South Korea and China are hoping to take this.
MR. COSTA: Susan, turning the globe a bit, spinning it around, looking at what’s happening in Iran, what are we to make of the protests there that dominated that country this week? And what’s next for Iran as they deal with, well, with the uprising?
MS. GLASSER: Well, you know, it’s very interesting. I just ‒ I just came from doing an interview for my podcast with meeting Iranian journalists. And it’s striking how much really the Iranian government and the U.S. government was surprised by the outbreak of protests the very last week of 2017 and continuing into this first week of 2018. It’s coming from a place that’s not the kind of disaffected, upper-middle-class, educated, urban intelligentsia who turned out in the Green Movement after the election of 2009.
What’s striking about this, you could say it’s almost happening in the Iranian equivalent of Trump country, in the smaller cities, some of them very conservative, working-class areas, people complaining about unemployment, complaining about economic hopelessness, complaining about the amount of money and blood and treasure spent by the government of Iran on basically regional adventures. You know, helping the Syrian regime next door, for example.
And so the question is, will these protests be able to continue? Most analysts believe that the government in Iran certainly has the ability to crack down. They’ve shown it as they’ve helped the brutal regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad next door that they’re willing to do what it takes to put down any kind of an uprising.
But, you know, does it herald a new stage of political unrest inside Iran? And, of course, what’s going to happen here in Washington next week over the next 10 days as President Trump has to decide once again whether to waive sanctions on Iran as part of the nuclear deal or whether he’s finally going to move ahead and blow up the deal that all along he said was the worst deal ever?
MR. COSTA: Susan, let’s stick with that for a moment, because when President Trump evaluates what’s happening in Iran and he looks at the decision he has to make, all these protests, are they factoring in that decision-making process inside of the U.S. government and the White House?
MS. GLASSER: Well, there’s no question, of course, that it has to be factoring. This is the most significant unrest inside Iran since the Green Movement of 2009. And so first of all, it allows President Trump and his administration to come out very forcefully and say we’re going to do something that Barack Obama did not and we’re going to speak out on behalf of the protestors, on behalf of democratic protests inside Iran. And you saw that even with an extraordinary op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence literally saying basically Barack Obama screwed up in 2009 and we’re not going to make that same mistake again.
Donald Trump has personally tweeted several times words of support for the protestors. They’ve threatened a new round of sanctions were the protests to be met with a violent crackdown. So obviously, it is factoring into the administration’s calculation. But, you know, people are so uncertain. I asked one veteran Middle East adviser to presidents in both parties this week what he thought President Trump would do next week on the Iran sanctions. And he said, you know, it’s harder to predict what Donald Trump will do on foreign policy than it is to predict what will happen in the Middle East.
MR. COSTA: And that question, what will President Trump do? Evan, that’s on the mind of diplomats and leaders around the world, but it doesn’t seem to be much on the minds of China too much. They’re plowing ahead, reading your piece ‒ it was a terrific one ‒ in The New Yorker, Making China Great Again. As this new year begins, where is China? And are they thinking about Trump or moving ahead on their own with their own strategy globally?
MR. OSNOS: Well, it’s an interesting moment for them. Frankly, it’s not one they expected. They thought when the Trump administration came in that they were going to be dealing with a president who told them that, you know, China was, as he put it, raping the United States, taking advantage of the American openness and economy. And in fact, what Trump has shown them, as far ‒ this is what they tell me and what they tell others ‒ is that he can be managed using some of the tools that they have in their foreign policy toolbox, things like flattery, things like appealing to some of his desire for a close, personal chemistry with Xi Jinping.
They are confident right now. They are feeling as if this is a moment for them that they haven’t had in decades, if not longer, where they can begin to try to expand China’s presence on the world stage. As they put it recently, this is a new era. In a major speech last fall, Xi Jinping said this is a moment in which China will now be taking centerstage, and that’s really partly because of the opportunities created by the “America first” era.
MR. COSTA: And, Susan, that seemed to be the outlook in your story as well, in a sense, the strategic patience that you picked up among diplomats around the world as they evaluate this administration in the new year.
MS. GLASSER: Well, their strategic patience may well be running out. I thought Evan’s piece was terrific. And in a way, this opportunity that China appears to be seizing that Donald Trump has offered, that was a concern voiced I think by many of America’s allies and partners around the world who experienced the first year of the Trump administration as a really kind of shocking and almost jarring series of encounters, not just the tweets, although, of course, they’re paying attention to the tweets, as are we.
But even in many of the private interactions with President Trump when you go back and debrief some of the officials who have taken part in those, who have been involved in their government’s efforts to try to understand this volatile new president, I think there’s really a sense that Trump has turned away or put off many of America’s traditional allies in a way that potentially opens up opportunities for global rivals, such as Russia and China. And I wonder whether 2018 will be the year that you see much more aggressive taking advantage of those openings by Russia and China. If 2017 was the year of taking Trump’s measure, I think 2018 may well be the year where you see actions as a result of those decisions and that sizing up.
MR. COSTA: We’ll have to leave it there. But if you want to understand this complicated world, you must read Evan Osnos in The New Yorker and Susan Glasser in POLITICO, two wonderful writers and reporters, and we welcome you to Washington Week. Thank you very much.
MS. GLASSER: Thank you.
MR. OSNOS: Thank you very much.