‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,’ the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, used to say. A century later the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, is pursuing the opposite philosophy, particularly in relation to North Korea.

The 45th President is probably the loudest in his country’s history. Typical was his response to the latest round of provocation by the North Koreans, who made more missile tests and let it be known that they had the US Pacific territory of Guam in their sights. ‘North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,’ Trump said at the clubhouse of one of his golf courses. ‘They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.’

The international community is used to such extravagant rhetoric from Pyongyang, but it is far more worrying when it comes from the leader of the world’s leading military power. Like his predecessors, Trump is understandably frustrated with the difficulty of counteringNorth Korean intransigence, but conjuring up the danger of a nuclear war that would lay waste to the Korean peninsula simply demonstrates to Kim Jong-un, his opponent, that he is getting under the President’s skin.

Trump’s megaphone diplomacy towards China, publicly demanding that Beijing brings the North Koreans to heel, seems destined to have precisely the opposite effect. In this issue we report on quieter efforts by America to deal with the North Korean problem, but again they risk being undermined by bluster from the White House.

There are those who argue that the President’s bark is considerably worse than his bite, and that sense prevails more often than his critics claim. For evidence they might point to his reversal of policy on Afghanistan: having called for the US to pull out during his election campaign, he is now planning to reinforce the American troop presence in the country, more than 15 years after they arrived (see Month in Brief).

This is seen as a sign that the serving and retired generals now exerting increasing influence in Washington – in this case, Defence Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser HR McMaster and the President’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, who has ejected right-wing nationalists such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka from the White House – are in the ascendancy, and that greater stability will now prevail in the US administration. But the language used by Trump in announcing his Afghanistan change of heart is not reassuring.

My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like to follow my instincts,’the President said.‘I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office.’ If that sounded like a dose of realism, however, he went on to present the decision as adhering to his ‘America First’ approach: ‘Our troops will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.’

This simplistic policy takes no account of the fact that Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are all pursuing their own, often mutually hostile, aims in Afghanistan, and has little chance of success when the increase in US forces is expected to be modest. Once again indulging his predilection for public rather than private diplomacy, he told the Afghan government to shape up, warned Pakistan to stop giving terrorists a safe haven and promised India would help.


Like his predecessors, Donald Trump is discovering that a US President has far more freedom abroad than in domestic policy, but few have had to learn so much, so visibly, on the job. A world that once might have imagined that ‘America First’ meant isolationism is now having to come to terms with the President’s new taste for intervention, with Syria another example. It will have to decide which is worse.

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