On Tuesday, President Trump tweeted about North Korea and generated the usual round of mockery and contempt. “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea,” the president said, “it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”
Four minutes later, the New York Times’s Alex Burns quoted Trump’s tweet and remarked, “Incredible statement, considering Trump’s whole North Korea policy during the campaign was: a strong POTUS could make China fix it fast.” Contradiction duly noted: In the 2016 campaign Trump said American policymakers had mishandled North Korea by failing to enlist the regional power, China, to pressure the regime into saner behavior. But now Trump says “it has not worked out.”
This strikes me as an oddly incurious reading of Trump’s tweet. Surely it’s at least theoretically possible that the president meant to convey something other than his tweet’s surface-level meaning. But no, CNN’s Dan Merica didn’t think so. “For months,” Merica wrote,
President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and top aides have staked any progress dealing with North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear program on China’s involvement.
On Tuesday, Trump upended much of that work in 140 characters, tweeting that Chinese efforts have “not worked out.”
I am not convinced that any tweet could “upend” all that work, whatever “upend” might mean in this context. Maybe, though, Trump intended his ambiguous tweet to rattle the Chinese out of their complacency on the subject of North Korea. His pronouncement seems to have rattled Merica and his White House sources, anyhow: The tweet “caught multiple Trump administration officials off guard, leaving them scrambling as they tried to figure out what exactly the President meant.” It’s surely safe to assume, then, that China’s Central Committee is also scrambling to figure out what Trump meant and what it ought to be doing in response.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp took a shot at interpreting the tweet but didn’t have much success. “You can sort of try to piece together what Trump might have meant,” he writes.
It seems like he’s declaring failure in some kind of campaign by China to help the United States bring North Korea in line on issues of mutual concern, like the nuclear program and Otto Warmbier (the American who died this week shortly after being released from a North Korean prison camp).
Trump, who used to blame China for North Korean misbehavior but changed his mind after a 10-minute chat with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, seems to be exonerating his new buddies in Beijing from any culpability in Warmbier’s death or North Korean ongoing missile tests.
It’s true, as Beauchamp says, that you can sort of try to piece together what Trump might have meant, but he sort of didn’t try very hard. Like other smart commentators, he takes a rigorously one-dimensional approach to Trump’s words. If the president said the Chinese tried to do something about North Korea but in the end it didn’t work, he must have meant precisely and only that.
Of course, political language is never one-dimensional, especially not in the sphere of foreign relations. The things diplomats and their principals say in public to and about each other never mean exactly what they seem to mean, even (or especially) when they seem to mean very little. Every pundit knows this. Yet for some reason, most of them interpret Trump’s tweets more or less the way you interpret your washing machine’s warranty agreement. The words mean only what they seem to mean, nothing more.
You might fairly attribute what I’m about to say to sheer perversity — I tend to side with the guy everyone says is an idiot — but I regard Trump’s tweet as a little rhetorical masterpiece. On its surface, the tweet is a polite trifle. You guys did your best, Xi. Thanks for trying. Better luck next time! The context, though, is the North Korean regime’s kidnapping and murder of an American citizen, and so its past tense suggests an ominous note: China tried, but it has not worked out.
What now? Something important, apparently. But Trump doesn’t say.
All this sounds even more ominous, to my ear, or at least more ambiguous, in light of Trump’s uncharacteristically anodyne statement on the death of Otto Warmbier. It reads like a traditional diplomatic condemnation — there are “thoughts and prayers” for the family and a “determination to prevent such tragedies” in the future — and concludes with a formulaic censure: “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
Clearly, Trump didn’t write it. He signed off on it, probably, but these are not his words. He never “condemns” abstractions such as “brutality.” Which makes you think that he and his advisers are formulating a strategy to deal with North Korea. Or at any rate that Trump is more interested in planning a response than in expressing one.
If I were China, I would be getting off my ass right about now.