The Trump administration is undertaking its most audacious gamble since coming to office—that despite identifying Russia and China as “rival powers” in the new National Security Strategy, and after calling into question the utility of the United Nations system, the other major players in the international order will work within the UN framework to bring about a resolution of the North Korea crisis on terms favorable to American interests and without imposing major costs on the United States. The new sanctions approved today unanimously by the UN Security Council mark a success for the Trump administration. “Today, we cut deeper,” UN ambassador Nikki Haley said about the sanctions, which were imposed as a response to North Korea’s November 29 missile test. But whether the Trump administration’s approach to Russia and China will continue to work and whether the sanctions themselves will have a real effect remain an open question.
The Trump administration’s approach is a break from the strategy employed by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91. In order to construct the widest coalition committed to the goal of expelling Iraq from Kuwait—and to plug up any and all cracks that Saddam Hussein might try to exploit—the Bush administration engaged in a delicate series of negotiations to bring countries on board. Whether lifting some sanctions on Beijing to guarantee China’s abstention from key UN Security Council votes, to the proffering of Western aid to the Soviet Union to ensure Mikhail Gorbachev’s support, to the complicated set of balances that brought Syrian ground forces into the anti-Saddam coalition while keeping Israel out of the fight, even when Iraq launched SCUD missiles—the U.S. offered compromises and inducements to bring a mix of countries, big and small, into the coalition.