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North Korea is Donald Trump’s most dangerous policy challenge: ex-CIA director

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-02-2017 Preeti Dawra

Hong Kong: There is little doubt that 2016 was a year like no other, with some of the largest political earthquakes in recent times.

The UK voted to leave the European Union. Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the US. ISIS and its affiliates grew in influence and expanded their capacity to strike terror in the heart of Europe and Asia. Syria descended into further chaos as hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens sought refuge in Europe. Russia, Iran and North Korea continued to make the world nervous as they grew in power and influence.

Political pundits endlessly speculate now about what lies in store for 2017?

And while there is no consensus, the one certainty is that a significant part of where the world moves will be defined by the domestic and foreign policy actions and outcomes of US President Donald Trump and his administration.

His critics think he is plain wrong on curbing immigration, too soft on Russia, too adversarial with China, and too arrogant with key allies such as Australia.

And both his allies and adversaries alike await with trepidation on what exactly he will do, especially when provoked by a rogue nation like North Korea that is testing America’s patience through its nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.

The country is now poised to cross a dangerous threshold by finally developing the capability to hit the continental United States with a nuclear missile in the next four years.

“North Korea is President Trump’s most dangerous foreign policy challenge today, and in many ways, the biggest threat to the world,” said David H. Petraeus, a retired US general and former Central Intelligence Agency director, on a recent visit to Hong Kong.

“This is the most dangerous time in the history of modern world. We are no longer in the European century, or the American century, and have not yet entered the Chinese or the Asian century. The world is a more insecure place than ever before,” he added.

Few people have had a ringside view of American foreign policy and have helped shape it like Petraeus. He led the surge in Iraq that played a key role in reversing the endemic violence in the country in 2007.

He was also in command of coalition forces in Afghanistan that helped reduce the influence of Al Qaeda in the region.

More recently, Petraeus has been in the global news. After being considered for the position of US secretary of state in December, he was a potential candidate last week for the post of US National Security Advisor, a position that opened after Michael Flynn’s resignation. This has not come to pass.

H. R. McMaster has been appointed.

Petraeus is supposed to have expressed concern about Trump’s reluctance to grant the new adviser full discretion over policy and staffing.

His prerequisites for the job were apparently not acceptable to the Trump administration.

Petraeus remains a keen observer on US foreign policy and makes his views known candidly. He says Trump has to be careful about what he says in public about North Korea in view of its recent provocations. He has to be ready to take action to back up his words or else he will not be taken seriously.

“He drew a red line at Pyongyang’s feet, tweeting, ‘It won’t happen!’ But the real question is how to stop it. Where does he draw the line? And what options can he realistically exercise if North Korea crosses the line?”

Indeed, Trump faces some difficult choices ahead, given that decades of sanctions, threats, isolation, talks, and concessions have had little impact.

Another failed foreign policy initiative in Northeast Asia would no doubt send a message to its allies that the US is weak. It would also pave the way for China to expand its regional influence.

“It’s going to take more than a few aggressive tweets for Trump to make North Korea fall in line,” said the retired CIA chief who resigned in 2012 after admitting that he had an extramarital affair.

At the Asia Society in Hong Kong, Petraeus, who is now a partner with the global investment firm KKR and chairman of the KKR Global Institute since 2013, spoke candidly about the state of the world and America’s role in it under the Trump administration.

He views India as a key geopolitical player that can help stabilize the global economy if it is able to fulfill its potential.

“If the (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi moment ever arrives, or arrives in the near future, India will have a huge and positive impact. The world needs India to succeed.”

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is your view of India-US relationship and how will it shape under the Trump administration?

The India-US relationship is quite exceptional today. It has grown tremendously in the last eight years under President (Barack) Obama. I think Trump can and will build on it. India is a key partner for the war against terrorism. It is in a tough neighbourhood and is playing a constructive role in the region to stabilize it. This will also positively affect the security of the rest of the world.

How would you define the state of the world today?

I am concerned by the extent to which the international political, financial, security and legal organizations, norms and principles established in the previous century after the Great Depression and the two world wars are being challenged by many countries and non-state actors. These institutions and norms stood the world in good stead. It is important that we continue to ensure their legitimacy and evolution in a thoughtful and principled manner.

Trump met with you in December 2016 to discuss a potential candidacy for secretary of state. He declared on Twitter afterward that he had been “very impressed!” How did that meeting go for you?

He was keen to discuss how to translate his campaign rhetoric and slogans into reality, in a strategic context. I found him to be focused and keen to find pragmatic solutions to move forward. I suggested that beyond focusing on building the wall, we have a more comprehensive strategy to beef up with more borders and immigration officers, more intelligence, surveillance, and forge a more effective partnership with Mexico.

I asked him, “You’re not against trade. You are against free trade right?”

And he said “yeah.”

So, we discussed replacing TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) with bilateral arrangements, which were reasonable for both America and its trading partners like China.

While China seems to have emerged in recent times to be a stabilizing force in Asia, it is also creating instability with the South China Sea dispute. What is your view of China’s position in this strategic dispute?

I find it hard to explain the more aggressive actions of China in the South China Sea dispute with its neighbours.

It is a country going through a great economic transition. China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in modern history.

But today, it has so many domestic challenges with heavily polluted air and water, excess capacity in infrastructure and manufacturing, a huge shadow market, technology displacement leading to rising unemployment, and a demographic downturn.

You know there is a real fear that unlike Japan, which got rich before it got old, China could grow old without getting rich.

So, the government is focused on dealing with these and other issues. Why get distracted with the South China Sea dispute?

Syria has created a huge crisis for EU. How will it impact EU and where is it headed?

We need to urgently find a solution to Syria with consensus among key players. It is like Chernobyl spewing radioactive effects everywhere—violence, instability, extremism and the tsunami of refugees into the countries of our NATO allies and European partners, causing the biggest challenge in Europe and its leaders in many decades. It’s much tougher for them than even the euro crisis.

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