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Walking into a trap

July 14,2018
Kim Su-jeong
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Diplomats are soldiers who fight for their countries on the frontlines and shape the course of history. Most of the career diplomats I have come across are dedicated to their profession. But I have seen a few who resist commands that go against conventional security norms, the philosophy of their nation or their long-held beliefs and opt to resign from office. The great majority, however, mostly comply with commands from their home capitals. The same goes for diplomats in other countries.

The U.S. State Department has been shaken under President Donald Trump. Since Trump moved into the White House, 60 percent of senior-ranking career diplomats resigned and new applications to join foreign service fell by half, according to the American Foreign Service Association. The exodus did not stop this year. Acting U.S. ambassador in China David Rank, ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, Under Secretary Thomas Shannon, and Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton bowed out. Some politely cited personal reasons while others bluntly criticized the president for taking the U.S. out of global agreements including a climate deal. Some accused Trump of going against traditional American commitments to universal values. Others fell out with the president’s aides.

The latest to jump ship was James Melville, ambassador to Estonia, who has been in the foreign service for 33 years. According to a Foreign Policy report, Melville has told his friends that he was resigning because he cannot work under a president who demeans U.S. allies in Europe. “A foreign service officer’s DNA is programmed to support policy, and if there ever comes a point where one can no longer do so, the honorable course is to resign.”

“I leave willingly and with deep gratitude for being able to serve my nation with integrity for many years, and with great confidence that America, which is and has always been, will someday return to being right,” he said.

His decision comes after Trump lashed out at traditional western allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and trans-Atlantic partnership over trade and defense spending issues along with the U.S. exit from the Iranian nuclear deal. The veteran diplomat opted to walk out instead of participating in the shaming and devaluation of American dignity.

Unsurprisingly, Trump took the NATO summit in Brussels by storm. In the annual conference, he threatened to “do his own thing” if NATO members did not increase defense spending. He bluntly told the leaders while the media cameras were on that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” saying Berlin buys more natural gas from Moscow than it needs. He asked why Washington should spend money to defend Germany from Russia when it is so dependent on the country for energy. He argued for leveling the playing field and demanded NATO members to meet their 2014 commitment of upping defense spending to 2 percent of GDP earlier than their pledged 2024 and ultimately to 4 percent to match U.S. spending.

The U.S. last year spent about 3.57 percent of its GDP on defense, according to NATO figures.

The NATO treaty constitutes a system of collective defense whereby the 29 member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party. The arrangement to deter Russian invasion of Europe and the rearmament of Germany after World War II has been the main security order of the Western front.

Trump’s foreign policy over the past year has been cold-shouldering old friends of Uncle Sam and befriending foes. He slammed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who hosted a G-7 economic summit, as “dishonest and weak” and refused to the sign the G-7 communinique. He cut his trip to Canada short and flew to Singapore ahead of schedule for a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and offered to stop joint military exercises with South Korea. After treating traditional NATO allies with disdain, Trump traveled to the U.K, and will go onto Helsinki on July 17 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently told the Financial Times that the impulsive president has been reducing the role of his Defense Secretary James Mattis and may sack him when he replaces his chief of staff John Kelly. Trump reportedly did not consult with Mattis when he decided to stop joint military drills with South Korea.

The exodus of skilled diplomats could cause serious harm to the 70-year old alliance system that Trump wishes to trash for being obsolete. The fissures would immensely please China and Russia which are both trying to restore their 19th century hegemony over their continents. Trump’s America First policy may have helped make jobs in the U.S., but it may take a serious toll on the global status of the U.S.

NATO members are responding to the provocative challenges of the era of Trump with the option of leaving out the U.S. in military drills and realigning military and arms deployment. Even as North Korea makes barely any move towards denuclearization and instead is believed to be stocking up nuclear materials, South Korea has called off all major military exercises and construction of additional frontline security posts. President Moon Jae-in said he desires to achieve a peace treaty to end the Korean War armistice within the year and is rushing to give Trump an excuse to pull U.S. soldiers from South Korea, although the North Korean threat has hardly subsided. Trump’s blind wishes to win voters ahead of the midterm election has led him into a trap set by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, South Korea may be willingly walking into a trap Pyongyang and Beijing have set up.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 13, Page 28