Where to Go From Here

Rebooting American Foreign Policy

I’ll have what Xi’s having: Xi and Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, April 2017. Carlos Barria / REUTERS

Every new U.S. administration takes several months to staff itself properly, master new and often unfamiliar responsibilities, and develop a comprehensive strategy for American foreign policy. The Trump administration’s start has been especially rocky. But the administration has already executed a noticeable course shift on foreign policy and international affairs, exchanging some of its early outsider rhetoric and personnel for more conventional choices. If it can continue to elaborate and professionalize its new approach, it could achieve a number of successes. But for that to happen, the administration will have to act with considerably greater discipline and work to frame its policies toward regional and global issues as part of a coherent, strategic approach to international relations that benefits the United States, its allies and partners, and the world at large.


President Donald Trump has properly concluded that the greatest threat to U.S. national security is North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and missile programs, which may give Pyongyang the ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles at the continental United States in a matter of months or at most years. The president also seems to have concluded, correctly, that several decades of U.S. policy, mostly consisting of sanctions and on-again, off-again negotiations aimed at ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons, have failed. The challenge now is to choose among the three plausible alternative options for moving forward: acceptance, military intervention, or more creative diplomacy. A fourth possibility, that of regime change, does not qualify as a serious option, since it is impossible to assess its chances or consequences. 

In theory, the United States and other powers could accept a North Korean nuclear capability and rely on deterrence to lower the risk of an attack and missile defenses to reduce the damage should one occur. The problem is that deterrence and defenses might not work perfectly—so the acceptance option means living with a perpetual risk of catastrophe. Moreover, even if Pyongyang were deterred from using the weapons it developed,

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