Trump Plays War Games on Twitter, and Americans Are Getting Worried
Policy + Politics

Trump Plays War Games on Twitter, and Americans Are Getting Worried

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Americans are feeling uneasy about President-elect Donald Trump’s ability to deal with international challenges and use military force wisely, and the real estate mogul is providing them with plenty of provocations to worry about.

A new Gallup survey finds that only 46 percent of Americans are confident in Trump’s ability to handle an international crisis, and only 47 percent believe he would use U.S. military force wisely. By contrast, at least seven in ten Americans had confidence in Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before each of them took office.

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In the run-up to his Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump has repeatedly rattled China’s cage with sharp criticism of its trade and geopolitical policies, and his phone conversation with the Taiwan president disrupted decades of diplomatic protocol barring such communications.

Trump has virtually sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin against the U.S. intelligence community by questioning whether Russian hackers meddled in the U.S. election. He declared that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” all but inviting a renewal of the nuclear arms race.

And faced with the threat from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that his rogue nation might soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile that potentially could reach the United States, Trump flatly declared “It won’t happen” in a tweet on Monday, without providing a sense of what the diplomatic or military consequences for North Korea might be.

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Trump has refused to relinquish his Twitter account since his surprise victory in November, despite mounting criticism from Democrats, public policy experts and others that it is a highly imprecise and reckless way to set policy and interact with foreign leaders. This is especially true since his national security, defense and foreign affairs team is still a work in progress and many of this top nominees are awaiting Senate confirmation.

Bruce Klingner, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow and specialist on North and South Korea, said in an interview on Tuesday that “I would hope once Mr. Trump becomes president he’ll stop using a Twitter account to send signals about U.S. policy.”

“Statements during the campaign as well as subsequent post-election tweets have generated questions and concerns amongst our allies, because they raise questions of what U.S. policy will be under Mr. Trump,” said Klingner, a one-time CIA deputy division chief. “Things that raise questions about U.S. commitment or resolve to support our allies, or conversely, suggestions of military action are catching allies by surprise.”

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“And while unpredictability may be good in business negotiations, it’s less than optimal for alliance management,” he added. “Every word, every nuance issued by a U.S. president is parsed and analyzed and over-analyzed for suggestions of any policy change … And Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is extremely constrained in conveying nuance.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense and foreign policy expert with the Brookings Institution, agrees with Klingner that Twitter is not a good tool for diplomacy.

“The reason is NOT for its lack of politesse,” O’Hanlon said in an email. “The Chinese don’t deserve polite words on the subject of North Korea and certainly North Korea’s leadership deserves no soft words. However, once Trump fails to stop the ICBM launch (as he will, even if he decides to shoot it down after launch), his words will have rung hollow, and that will weaken him and hurt his credibility.”

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“So for the good of his own reputation and that of the US, he shouldn’t promise to stop things that he may well fail to prevent,” O’Hanlon added.

Trump followed his warning to Kim with another potshot at China, North Korea’s main patron and trading partner. Trump complained that while China “has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth” from the U.S., it “won’t help with North Korea” in tamping down Kim’s fast expanding nuclear program. “Nice!” Trump added sarcastically.

Some experts agree with Trump that China could have brought more pressure on North Korea to rein in its nuclear program, although that carried risks of retaliation or heightened tensions between China and its neighbor. The United States and South Korea have responded to North Korean nuclear and missile tests with escalating economic sanctions.

Last month, the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea designed to cut its annual export revenue by a quarter, after Pyongyang carried out is fifth and largest nuclear test in September. China went along with the sanctions, but complained that the United States and its ally South Korea were intensifying confrontation with North Korea through military exercises.

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In response to Trump’s latest tweets, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China had been pressing for the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, according to media reports. "China's efforts in this regard are perfectly obvious," Geng told reporters.

Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway was asked on ABC’s Good Morning America on Tuesday what Trump intended to do to stop North Korea's nuclear expansion. "He's not stated that publicly, and he won't before he's inaugurated," Conway said. "But we do know that there are sanctions that are possible … They have not always worked. I think China would have to have a significant role here as well.”