Might North Korea negotiations, steel tariffs, and firing Rex Tillerson all be connected by a single thread? Possibly so.
Trump allegedly told the Chinese government that he would hit hard on trade unless help was forthcoming with North Korea. Help has been forthcoming, in contrast to the complete brush off that Obama got. But the Chinese could do much more. Now that the North Koreans have blinked, and asked for talks, the steel and aluminum tariffs could well be a reminder to China that Trump expects more of them.
Meanwhile, North Korea blinking was very bad news for Iran. If the game of confrontation did not work out well for North Korea, strangled or at least intimidated by ever tighter sanctions, might it also end badly for Iran? Granted, Iran has a long border with Russia, while North Korea has only a short and hard to traverse border with Russia, so Russia would keep it alive if sanctions tightened again. But the Iranian economy is already in shambles, and this is a big gamble.
This is where the firing of Tillerson may come in. Tillerson was a voice of calm and reason who counseled caution and in particular keeping Obama’s Iran treaty. By some accounts, it was Tillerson’s stand on Iran that finally got him fired. By firing him, and replacing him with Mike Pompeo, Trump may be sending a signal to Iran, North Korea, and China all at once. It may also be worth pointing out that these three, plus Russia, are some of the premier examples of world crony capitalism. Aggression against neighbors is a common feature of crony capitalist regimes, because it distracts their people from the misery caused by deep corruption inside the country.
Richard Nixon wanted to end the Vietnam War on the best terms he could get. He supposedly told his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, that he wanted the North Vietnamese to regard him as unstable, unpredictable, even crazy, because this would further his calculated objective. In effect, Nixon was trying to cover his retreat by appearing more bellicose and frightening than his foes. Could this be what Trump is up to? Maybe yes, maybe no. It is a distinct possibility. A US president today is not just retreating from Vietnam; he is retreating from the world. Obama did this in his own way. It did not work so well with global thugs armed with nuclear weapons. Whether a more theatrical approach (if it is indeed calculated, and not just Trump being a blowhard, as President HW Bush allegedly called him), will work better, time will tell.