If There’s a Winner in the Summit Cancellation, It’s Not the US
What a disappointing moment it was when Trump canceled the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un because of recent “tremendous anger and open hostility” by Pyongyang toward members of his administration.
In an instant, the prospect of a triumphant Trump—or more importantly, a triumphant civilized world—pulling off what had seemed such an incredible diplomatic long shot over these last months was shattered in a letter that sounded wildly unsophisticated and curious in its own right. In a world where nations are brandishing real nuclear weapons, Trump was swayed to cancel the summit by some untoward words?
In truth, there probably had not been enough diplomatic homework to make resolution come about in the best ways, but in a single, unilateral, Dear Leader Kim letter, Trump managed:
- To catch his South Korean allies by surprise, especially since Trump had just met at the White House with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
- To leave open all questions of what might come next in the tango with North Korea.
- To confuse all about how to interpret the very public move of North Korea just destroying its own nuclear testing grounds—with dozens of foreign journalists and observers still in the country
- To raise all kinds of wonder about the role being played by China in perhaps whispering behind the scenes at Kim to slow things down.
And then, Trump said just maybe, if Kim wanted, things could be put right again in time for June 12 or sometime down the road.
Essentially, Trump, who calls for straight, tough talk in lieu of diplomacy, has managed to leave us agape. What exactly pissed off Trump—perhaps the calling of Vice President Mike Pence as “ignorant and stupid” for suggesting that North Korea could end up like Libya if North Korea did not give up weapons—was never made clear. Or maybe it was suggesting that North Korea was willing once again to stand up in a nuclear standoff with the U.S. Or maybe, just maybe it was the lack of belief that the North Koreans would do what they said they would do.
But exchanges did seem a renewal of the belligerent verbal smackdowns of the last year from teen-aged pushing partners.
What probably should happen is a deep breath and the exchange of lower-level people from both countries, as well as South Korea, China and Japan, to work through understandable, verifiable, detailed smaller steps toward something that eventually will be hailed at a summit between the leaders.
Every successful negotiation I have undertaken has involved just such a process, and, maybe just to me, it had seemed improbable that starting this process with the highest-level personalities might not have been the most reliable working path.
In this case, we’ve been talking about bringing together two extremely volatile personalities on an agenda defined only by the starkest extreme negotiating positions at the outset of what probably would become a much more involved process.
I noted the ruefulness of Jennifer Rubin, a right-leaning Washington Post columnist, who suggested, “In coming days and weeks we will learn exactly what transpired. Perhaps there never was a real offer, only wishful thinking from the South Koreans, infamous for their willingness to indulge in wishful thinking. Maybe this is the triumph of national security adviser John Bolton—give the man his due—who never believed North Korea was interested in voluntary denuclearization. The failure of his first significant foreign policy endeavor may have serious consequences for Pompeo, who went from savvy hawk to hopeful diplomat. If this impairs his future credibility and influence, his success in releasing U.S. prisoners may be looked back upon as the high point of his career.”
Who knows, maybe North Korea wants a deal badly enough that they will find a new way to reach out. Somehow, I find that more likely a prospect than thinking that Trump can keep Bolton and Pence muzzled in the critical innings, or that we might have considered taking a step to show understanding, like rescheduling the joint annual military exercises with South Korea.
In any case, I hope someone here has learned a lesson. Otherwise, this is a total loss that makes the world more dangerous, that eventually suborns American reactive thinking to longer-term, Chinese power-shifting thinking frames. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued, “Trump’s narcissism and his lack of empathy are a hindrance in foreign affairs. He has to put himself in the shoes of his adversaries, and that he cannot do. If he could, though, he would know that Kim fears for the very existence of his regime. His nukes are not some sort of security blanket. They are his actual security.”
Just for nothing, how do you think the leaders in Iran are reacting right about now?