War Stories

Diplomatic Disunity

Another week of humiliation for America’s top envoys.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Another week, another string of humiliations for America’s top diplomats.

On Wednesday, Vox reported (and a knowledgeable source confirmed to me on Thursday) that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has, on several occasions, given his North Korean counterparts eight months to turn over 60 or 70 percent of their nuclear weapons—but the North Koreans have simply ignored him.

This should be no surprise. First, Pompeo offered nothing in return for the rather significant act of disarmament he demanded. Second, it was a meaningless proposal to begin with, since the North Koreans haven’t yet given the Trump administration a list of the weapons they possess. (If the North Koreans wanted to be particularly mischievous, they could have shaken hands on the deal, dismantled three of their bombs, and said, “We did have five, so this is 60 percent of them.” U.S. intelligence agencies estimate they actually have as many as 60 bombs.)

Above all else, this is slipshod diplomatic practice. No competent negotiator comes out of the pen with such a specific demand, and such a specific timetable, without having a Plan B for what to do—how to turn up the pressure—if the other side does what the North Koreans have done: basically, given him the finger.

It is unclear whether Pompeo, a former West Point valedictorian and Tea Party congressman who served as Trump’s CIA director before taking his current job, is in way over his head—or whether he’s just carrying the president’s bucket of turbid water. Trump believes that the vaguely worded one-page “joint statement” that he and Kim signed at their June summit in Singapore was an agreement—at one point, he called it a “contract.” He also came away from the summit hailing Kim as an honorable man (“I trust him, and he trusts me”) who would start to “de-nuclearize” immediately upon returning home. (In fact, construction continues on two new ICBMs.) It is, therefore, doubtful that Trump will turn up the heat and prod Kim’s negotiators into action; that would constitute an admission that he’d misjudged the funny little man who’d shaken his hand and smiled and treated him with such respect. Even if he suddenly realizes he’s been had, it’s unclear what kind of pressure he would apply: After the bonhomie of Singapore, Russia and China have resumed trading with North Korea; South Korean President Moon Jae-in would loudly oppose a renewal of U.S. military threats. Trump has fumbled away whatever leverage he once had.

It’s also possible that Pompeo is following instructions drafted by national security adviser John Bolton, who took office in April, full of zesty hopes that the hard lines he’d long been advocating against Russia, North Korea, and Iran would finally become U.S. policy—only to see Trump turn to mush on the first two of those targets. In the case of North Korea, all it seemed to take was a “very nice note” from the tyrant that Trump had previously trashed as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” I suspect that Bolton is lying in wait for Trump’s illusions to dissolve—and meanwhile, doing all he can to ensure that the talks with Kim’s officials go nowhere (which they were likely to do anyway).

In the week’s other diplomatic disgrace, which also occurred on Wednesday, Republican Sen. Rand Paul—a periodic Trump critic who has found common ground with him as a Putin-admirer—traveled to Moscow, carrying a handwritten letter from the U.S. president proposing resumption of talks on arms control, counterterrorism, and cultural exchanges.

If this is what the letter really says (we have only Paul’s tweet to go by), it isn’t a bad thing; Moscow and Washington cooperated on issues of converging interests through the darkest years of the Cold War, when tensions were much sharper than those of today.

But here’s the thing: Delivering messages of this sort, from the American president to the Russian president, is properly the job of the U.S. ambassador. Trump’s ambassador, Jon Huntsman, is a true professional—a former governor of Utah who has served under every president since Ronald Reagan, including as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China.

Yet Huntsman must be wondering what the hell he’s doing at this job. Even before this week, he’d had to juggle two conflicting U.S. policies toward Russia: on the one hand, the more traditional views of the State Department and every other relevant Cabinet officer (sanctions and containment in response to Russia’s violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and to the nerve-gas poisonings of former spies now living in England, combined with pragmatic cooperation where possible); on the other hand, Trump’s unseemly obsequiousness to Putin, reflecting a desire for “good relations” across the board at all cost. And now Paul’s ascension as Trump’s messenger boy has, in effect, rendered Huntsman irrelevant. Should he ever call on Putin or his various ministers, to protest some human-rights violation in Russia, or atrocity in Syria, or some other objectionable act, the Russians can—quite reasonably—dismiss his complaints as mere noise. Trump has shown them that, when it comes to real messages from the White House, Huntsman is no longer his man—and therefore, of no use in Moscow.

Huntsman, like any other ambassador in his position, should resign. If he left now, he would do so with his integrity, and the prospects of a political future, intact—something that can’t be said of many other high-ranking officials, who have dunked themselves in the swamp too many times to walk away untainted.

Finally, the New York Times reported on Thursday that, in early July, senior national security officials, led by Bolton, urged NATO ambassadors to sign a crucial policy document before Trump arrived at the alliance’s summit in Brussels—fearing that, otherwise, he would wreck the meeting and foment disunity, just as he had at the G-7 meeting in Toronto a few weeks earlier. In other words, Trump’s officials know that they’re working for a bad egg, a disruptive force.

Meanwhile, the world is now divided into two types of leaders: those who wonder what the hell is going on in Washington—and those who are exploiting the confusion.