TSC IntelBrief: Dismissing and Demeaning Diplomacy
October 2, 2017

Dismissing and Demeaning Diplomacy


• In an October 1st tweet, U.S. President Donald Trump told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson he was ‘wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man’—the President’s slighting nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

• President Trump then tweeted that the U.S. ‘will do what has to be done,’—following up his public dismissal of diplomacy with a vague threat.

• This unprecedented public practice of the ‘good cop bad cop’ negotiation technique—if that is what it is—has no place in diplomatic talks about nuclear weapons.

• Bellicose rhetoric and a disdain for diplomacy are leaving the U.S. with fewer options and partners on the international stage.


Less than a day after U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson told reporters the U.S. had several direct lines of communication with the North Korean regime (without confirming the countries were actually communicating), President Trump undermined his chief diplomat in an unusual and very public fashion. On September 30, Secretary Tillerson called the situation with North Korea ‘a bit overheated right now’ adding the U.S. was asking North Korea ‘would you like to talk?’ On October 1, President Trump responded to Tillerson by tweeting ‘”I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.’ He followed that up with another tweet: ‘Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!’

President Trump has been very open in his disdain for diplomacy, viewing negotiations in a purely transactional manner as deals rather than opportunities to build constructive relationships with other nations. Unlike diplomatic negotiations that must accommodate conflicting interests, in the Trump administration, ‘deals’ involve winners and losers, an undiplomatic approach to conflict resolution at the highest levels. Yet even for an administration that openly boasts that unpredictability in foreign relations is an acceptable or even preferential tactic for a superpower, the public dismissal of diplomacy regarding efforts to curb North Korea’s dangerous path is remarkable. Tensions between the nations remain extremely high, and Secretary Tillerson’s remarks, made during a visit to China—one of the crucial parties in resolving the North Korean crisis—were seen as a tempering, however slight, of last month’s bellicose rhetoric.  

Later on October 1, President Trump reinforced his earlier dismissal of diplomacy, again taunting the North Korean leader with the childish nickname ‘Rocket Man’, tweeting ‘Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.’ Kim Jong Un is only 33 years old and has been in power less than six years. Also, the notion of ‘being nice’ in negotiations is an odd one; high-pressure diplomacy certainly has its place, though it is usually most effective done in private. Shame or losing face is something all parties in any negotiation try to avoid; mixing taunts with nuclear weapons and rising military tensions makes this flurry of tweets even more dangerous and counterproductive.

There is no debate that the North Korean nuclear issue has been frustrating many parties for decades. Despite negotiations, agreements and economic sanctions, North Korea has steadily advanced both its nuclear weapons program and the ballistic missile capabilities to deliver such a weapon. The sanctions imposed on Pyongyang are among the most severe ever applied by the United Nations Security Council, and were tightened again just two weeks ago. Sanctions are just one tool of diplomacy, which, when properly practiced, creates opportunities for conducive partnerships with other nations. Yet, President Trump’s U.N. speech, in which he threatened to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea if it threatened the U.S., taken in conjunction with these Presidential tweets, appears to be boxing the U.S. into a corner with Pyongyang.


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