Crucial Silences

Buffoonery has its costs.
July 12, 2017 12:00 PM

Reuters

Sometimes what is important lies in the crucial silences of what is left unsaid. The world was exposed to just such an episode of silence last week at the Hamburg G20 summit. To recap, on July 4, Independence Day in the United States, North Korea tested an ICBM. In a departure from the past when Pyongyang attributed its missile activity to satellite launches and other peaceful uses of space, this time the official news agency KCNA, dropped the pretense, describing the new missile as capable of hitting the “heart of the United States” with “large heavy nuclear warheads.” The missile’s unusual trajectory was designed, according to KCNA, “to test warhead’s ability to endure the intense heat and vibrations as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.”

To add insult to injury, KCNA reported that Kim Jong-un guffawed as he taunted the US: “The American bastards must be quite unhappy after closely watching our strategic decision. I guess they are not too happy with the gift package we sent them for the occasion of their Independence Day. We should often send them gift packages so they won’t be too bored.” The North Korean public was delighted according to KCNA that the Young General had decided to “hit the arrogant Americans in the nose” by conducting the test on the Fourth of July.

In short, North Korea now has a missile theoretically capable of reaching Alaska on which it intends to load a nuclear warhead.

By sheer dint of dumb luck, the Hamburg G20 summit was scheduled for three days after the North Korean launch…If there was ever a time for the US to rally its allies, the calendar had handed it to us.

For more than two decades, the US has grappled with coordination failures created by the differing interests and internal politics of the major players, as Steph Haggard and I document in our recent book Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements, and the Case of North Korea. In the current episode, China and Russia responded to the ICBM launch with a pointless statement rejecting additional sanctions and instead proposing that the US and South Korea suspend joint military exercises in return for a freeze in North Korean testing.

But Donald Trump is a lucky man. By sheer dint of dumb luck, the Hamburg G20 summit was scheduled for three days after the North Korean launch. The leaders of South Korea, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, et al., all of whom could be reliably expected to join with the US in pressuring the Chinese and Russians would be present. If there was ever a time for the US to rally its allies, the calendar had handed it to us.

Crickets.

Do a search of the G20 communique. In the laundry list these documents have become, the words “Korea” and “missiles” do not appear. 

Buffoonery has its costs. The actions are what capture the headlines, but the opportunities foregone may be even more costly in the long-run.

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