Trump administration’s virtue signaling approach to North Korea confuses allies, isolates U.S.

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is a very bad man — and Vice President Mike Pence doesn’t want you to forget it.

Last Friday, at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, Pence brought the father of the late Otto Warmbier, an American student who suffered severe brain injuries while imprisoned in North Korea in 2016. Pence’s goal was to send a clear message that North Korea cannot “use the powerful symbolism and the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime.” The symbolic gesture at the Olympics followed President Donald Trump’s shout outs to Otto Warmbier and North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho during his State of the Union address last month.

Pence’s virtue signaling in North Korea, on its face, comes off as righteous disgust for a repressive regime. But further examination of the Trump administration’s rhetoric over the past year, as well as its overall lack of attention to human rights, makes Pence’s antics at the Olympics seem cynical and shortsighted, especially as South Korea and North Korea attempt to cool tensions.

While Trump and Pence highlight North Korea’s human rights abuses, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has claimed that advocating for American values abroad “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests.” The administration’s emphasis on North Korea’s repressive regime stands in stark contradiction to Trump’s recent meeting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a man who famously views human rights as a sentimental distraction from diplomacy.

The result is an incoherent foreign policy that confuses U.S. allies, especially when considering the inconsistency between Trump’s strategy and those of Obama’s and previous Republican administrations.  

Unlike the Trump administration, President Obama believed that the United States must lead by example. In 2016, Obama told the United Nations that North Korea must “face consequences” for its nuclear tests, adding that “nations with these weapons, like the United States, have a unique responsibility to pursue the path of reducing our stockpiles, and reaffirming basic norms like the commitment to never test them again.”  

President Richard Nixon’s approach was to pursue American security interests instead of fostering American values abroad. Under the direction of Kissinger, Nixon opened relations with China, pursued détente with the Soviet Union, and supported regimes in Chile and Greece, which many Americans viewed as morally objectionable. 

By the time George W. Bush took office, Kissinger’s realist approach was on the wane in conservative circles. Bush’s neoconservative strategy, as outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy, was made up of the overarching goals of counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and democracy promotion.

At its worst, Bush’s neoconservatism led to the Iraq war — a bungled attempt to transform a dictatorship into a democracy through military might. At its best, his approach produced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a public health program that has saved millions of lives in Africa. Although many perceived Bush’s belief that American values should be a blueprint for democracy as misguided, there was rarely any confusion about the United States’ goals, as the Bush administration typically remained consistent and clear about its actions.

Clarity is not the Trump administration’s strong suit, however. The president’s 2017 National Security Strategy proclaims, “We are not going to impose our values on others,” while also including a section about how the government will “Champion American Values.” When declaring his Afghanistan strategy last August, Trump insisted that America was “not nation-building again.”

In his address to the United Nations a month later, Trump echoed that America does “not seek to oppose or impose our way of life on anyone” and espoused a non-interventionist foreign policy. Yet, in the same speech, Trump also suggested possible intervention in Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea.

Trump and Pence don’t just offer reminders that the North Korean regime is evil — as Pence did when he brought Warmbier’s father to the Olympics — they escalate tensions with threats and militaristic rhetoric. Two days before the Olympic ceremonies, for example, Pence announced another round of sanctions on North Korea. He then tweeted that these sanctions would be “the TOUGHEST & most AGGRESSIVE” and that “we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear & ballistic missile program.”

Trump’s United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has expressed open skepticism of South Korean efforts to begin diplomatic talks with their northern neighbor. On Tuesday, after Pence suggested he was willing to talk to North Korea, Tillerson contradicted him, saying it was “too early to judge” if it was time to engage in talks. A well-regarded expert on the Koreas, Victor Cha, lost his opportunity to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea after he argued against a limited military strike on Kim’s regime. North Korea’s state-run newspaper even compared Trump’s State of the Union address to Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, which foreshadowed the eventual Iraq war.

All of this tough talk is giving heartburn to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who hopes that Olympic cooperation can encourage further engagement with Kim Jong Un. Moon worries that the Trump administration’s threats of a limited strike against North Korea will undermine the potential talks. He emphasized last year, in a signal to the Trump administration, that no military action could be taken on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean consent.

Through all of this, a pattern has emerged. The Trump administration repeatedly denies that it wishes to foster American values abroad, while engaging in performative moralizing against North Korea. Human rights are not a central focus of American foreign policy, but they are regularly used to provide the justification for war. Episodes like Pence’s virtue signaling in PyeongChang may remind foreign governments of America’s promise to morally transform Iraq through warfare — a promise the United States ultimately could not fulfill.

If there is any overarching theory guiding the Trump administration’s foreign policy, it may be found in a leaked State Department memo suggesting that America should only worry about human rights when it can be used as a bludgeon against nations like North Korea. As Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state under President Obama, told Politico, the memo “tells Tillerson that we should do exactly what Russian and Chinese propaganda says we do — use human rights as a weapon to beat up our adversaries while letting ourselves and our allies off the hook.”

America’s leading adversaries relish this contradictory image of the United States. Trump is playing directly into their hands, and the result is likely to be a weaker, more isolated America.