Skeptical Optimism for Success at the Trump-KJU Summit

This article was originally posted in the March 21st, 2018 edition of the Kentucky Standard.


Earlier this month, the White House announced that President Donald Trump would meet with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Rightly, it was received with skeptical optimism.

North Korea has been a vexing issue for more than six decades. The four previous administrations failed to address the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear program allowing it to fester and become the nuisance we have today. A lack of will by diplomats from across the globe provided space and time for North Korea to advance this far.

Part of the problem included uncompromising positions by American negotiating teams. Now, we’re left with a nuclear armed, highly volatile, but rational North Korea. They’re rational, because despite their odd behavior that may not fit Western norms, there is a method to the madness. Simply put, they want to be treated with respect and have their security interests acknowledged. They feel they can do so by advancing their nuclear program and threatening their neighbors, all while hoping their actions will bring their adversaries to the negotiating table. Their neighbors view war as cost prohibitive, when compared to diplomacy.

The new development, however, isn’t anything new. With Iran and Cuba, we faced counterparts who saw escalations as pathway to achieve their objectives. And just like with Cuba and Iran, concessions by both sides will have to be made in order for any progress to be realized with North Korea.

Trump, by agreeing to meet face-to-face, has already made a huge concession to his North Korean counterpart. Kim Jong Un has wanted this sort of meeting since he ascended to power. He feels it would signal the legitimacy of his leadership and be an acceptance of North Korea’s interests.

But, in making the concession earlier this month, Trump hasn’t received much in return. There has been a cessation of heated rhetoric, but that died down whenever Trump stopped calling Kim Jong Un “rocket man” on Twitter.

Unfortunately, the hallmarks of the Trump White House has been the lack of strategy, unyielding chaos, and understaffed offices—the opposite of what you need for diplomatic success. Trump fired his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, via Twitter shortly after announcing his meeting with Kim Jong Un. Tillerson’s replacement faces a tough confirmation battle. There isn’t an Ambassador to South Korea. Offices at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon responsible for shepherding US policy on the Korean peninsula remain woefully empty. The National Security Advisor is on the ropes with his replacement, John Bolton, known for his hawkishness.

Combine all of this with the all but certain fact Trump will likely pull out of the Iran deal and optimism for a diplomatic victory with North Korea should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. The hard-won Iran Deal, in which the Obama Administration built a compromise with five other global powers (all of which say the deal won’t be renegotiated) to stop Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb. Critics rightly complain it doesn’t cover ballistic missiles and support for militant organizations, but it was never meant to cover those issues in the first place. Iran’s nuclear program was always target number one. With that addressed, further negotiations could take place to mitigate or eliminate the other problems.

Tearing up the deal simply because it doesn’t address two outstanding issues sends two important messages, neither of which bode well for future diplomatic initiatives. First the US is led by an unstable President who lacks an appreciation for multilateral efforts, thus reducing American leadership to something less than ordinary. And second, it sends a message to the North Korean’s (and anyone else for that matter) that Trump can’t be trusted. If a good deal falls victim to Trump’s emotional instability, what’s to say a temper tantrum won’t force the collapse of the North Korea initiative.

Diplomacy is always preferred to the alternative—war. History suggests diplomacy typically follows war, but in the Iran Deal we saw diplomacy stave off yet another war in the Middle East. I’m optimistic that the various sides in the Korea crisis have decided to take diplomacy seriously. But, I’m skeptical we have a president with the skill sets necessary for a good bargain. Trump needs patience, political capital, and knowledgeable advisors to shepherd him through the process. He’s at a deficit in all three categories.

Our country deserves a president with the energy and vigor to solve complex global issues, not exacerbate them. To date, Trump hasn’t given any indication he’s up to the task. It’s a shame. We’re promised winning, instead we’re on the road to losing our status as global stabilizer. Sad.

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