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The North Korea crisis shows why having a functioning State Department matters

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Getty Images
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

North Korea fired a missile over Japan on Monday night, an extremely aggressive move that it has only done twice before in its history. This is the kind of situation that requires a thoughtful, sophisticated US response — but the Trump administration's diplomatic team is in complete disarray.

According to several reports out of the White House in the past week, the president is unhappy with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and potentially on the verge of firing him. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman described Trump as "livid" with the Secretary, and Axios's Jonathan Swan quotes Trump as saying "Rex just doesn't get it."

Tillerson himself is reportedly unhappy, and lacking vital staff when it comes to North Korea. There is no assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the State Department, nor is there an ambassador to South Korea. There aren't even nominees for those posts.

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The problem with this state of affairs, experts warn, is that crises demand smart and efficient policymaking. Even when the president is deeply knowledgeable and engaged in subject matter, good foreign policymaking requires qualified staff who can develop the right set of policies. It also requires high-level diplomats who can credibly communicate America's intentions and policy approach to its chief allies, namely Japan and South Korea.

But right now, the US doesn't have top-level people in the State Department developing diplomatic approaches to the North Korea crisis. And given the frequent public undermining of Secretary Tillerson, it's hard for foreign capitals to know how seriously to take him.

The result is a North Korea crisis where America's typical tools for crisis management — high-level statements and consultation with allies — aren't functioning. And experts agree that the consequences are unpredictable, but potentially severe.

"It's hard to convey how bad this is because it transcends usual definitions of 'bad,'" explains Paul Musgrave, a professor who studies American foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Is it bad to buy a car without tires or an exhaust pipe? Is it bad if your pilot has an open bottle of Johnnie Walker?"

This is when the Trump administration's dysfunction really matters

The United States doesn't have a lot of tools for punishing North Korea; military options are too risky and it's already extremely isolated economically. What the US can do, however, is deter conflict by signaling to North Korea that its provocations haven't changed American commitment to defend Japan and South Korea in the event of a real attack.

This is vitally important: If Japan and South Korea don't feel reassured by the United States during a crisis with the North, they could feel the need to send a signal to Pyongyang with some kind of unilateral military response — a step that could prompt further escalation from the North, making a crisis situation worse rather than batter.

"The missile launch yesterday was meant to signal to Japan that we can't defend them," Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea scholar at Yale University Law School, tells me. "Our options for managing the actual North Korea capability are relatively limited; it's the allied side of this we can affect but that takes a lot of work."

The president personally did some work on this on this after Monday's missile launch. He and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a 40-minute call afterward in which the president reportedly told Abe that "the US stands with Japan 100%." That's a good first step.

But the president is famously mercurial. Earlier this month, he threatened North Korea with "fire and fury like world has never seen" — reportedly without consulting allies first — unnecessarily escalating US-North Korea tensions. During the campaign, he mused about making the US alliances with South Korea and Japan conditional on those countries paying the United States a certain amount of money

So there's no guarantee the president will continue to play a constructive role in reassuring allies. That's why you need a credible secretary of state who can convey reassuring messages either behind the scenes or in public, supported by competent staff.

"This is a moment that will test alliance coordination, and having key people in place to manage that communication and coordination is essential. And internal [US government] coordination is critical to ensuring implementation of a coordinated plan," Laura Rosenberger, who was the National Security Council director for Korea and China in the Obama administration, tells me via email.

But with Tillerson marginalized, allies don't know whether they he's really speaking for the president when he makes promises to them. Trump has an ambassador in Tokyo, which is good, but there's currently no ambassador to Seoul. That's a problem, as South Korea is even more threatened by the North than Japan. And the top-level Asia position in State — the person whose job it is to coordinate the US government's response and get new policy ideas to Tillerson — remains unfilled.

The result is that American signals on North Korea are is haphazard and scattered, and far more dependent on the president's personal whims than it needs to be.

"As best I can tell all the foreign policy rhetoric is intended entirely for domestic consumption and there is no consideration of the international reaction," said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea's nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. "This administration is not ideal from many perspectives. It is the fractal of incompetence."

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has tried to fill in the gap by (among other things) continuing regularly scheduled joint military exercises that reinforce Japanese and South Korean confidence in America. But even Mattis has staffing problems: There is no assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department, and no one has even been nominated for the post.

More fundamentally, the secretary of defense cannot do diplomacy in a crisis situation — that's literally the State Department's job. In the absence of a trusted and qualified secretary of state and vital subordinates, the risk of a screw up during a crisis like this goes up.

It's more than possible that all of this amounts to nothing — that we muddle through this latest North Korea provocation and future ones on the strength of America's long-term commitment to South Korean and Japanese security. But the longer Tillerson remains a marginalized Secretary of State with poor staffing — the more likely it is that America makes a grievous error that escalates one of the world's scariest situations.

"War and conflict and loss of life on a huge scale remain unlikely," Musgrave says. "But if decades of strategists, textbooks, and bureaucratic wisdom is right it is higher than it should be in the absence of a government."