Around the time of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, I wrote a three-part series on the Korean Peninsula — claiming that the North Korean nuclear dilemma is more solveable than people think. I pointed to America’s skewed memory of the history of U.S./North Korean relations, in which negotiations failed, not (completely) because of North Korea, but because of an overly timid America which viewed every disagreement as a dangerous offense.
Now, with the Trump administration pulling out of what would have been a historic meeting between the two countries, America is continuing its legacy of missed opportunities.
One Trick Trump
On Thursday, May 24th, Trump announced that he would be canceling the North Korea — U.S. summit that had been planned for June.
“We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant. I was very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
For what will be the fourth major moment in the past two years, the Trump administration will officially pull themselves out of an international opportunity, removing themselves from a platform that could have been used to advance American interests. (The first three moments being the Transpacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, and the Iran Nuclear Deal).
Like with previous agreements, the administration claims that the goal of pulling out is, in essence, to get tough and get concessions. That by exiting deals, the U.S. will have better leverage for its demands in the future
But as Jon Wolfsthal and Julie Smith from Foreign Policy Magazine point out with regards to the Iran nuclear deal — a list of demands is not the same thing as a plan.
“The same administration that can’t do simple things like vet nominees, fill government positions, enact executive orders, or avoid alienating the United States’ oldest and closest allies is now going to recreate the most penetrating and effective sanctions system in human history?…The fact is: The Trump team does not have a plan or a strategy for how to get Iran to do any of the things that the United States rightly wants.”
The same holds true with the Koreans. The Trump administration — which feels the need to send actual nuclear death threats to a country 1/100th its size, and who took 16 months to choose a nominee for South Korean ambassador — is improvising day by day yet expecting big results.
Soundbites and Pipe Dreams
Here is an exchange between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Menendez. The Secretary is trying to explain President Trump’s decision to cancel the meeting.
Menendez: “We needed to test all of the propositions [if we had gone to the summit] and lay out all of the elements of what was ultimately to be decided in a way to find out whether the North Koreans were truly true.”
Pompeo: “Yes sir, that’s been done three times before in American history and Kim Jong-Un today possesses the most robust nuclear program he has ever had”
Menendez: “and as a result of canceling the summit he still possesses them.”
The “three times” Pompeo refers to has to do with the previous three presidents who all failed to reach a substantive agreement with the North Koreans.
This administration is great at giving sound-bite explanations for why we need new tactics this time around, but when it comes to actually developing thoughtful strategies, their efforts boil down to having “a wish list built on a pipe dream.”
Lies at Home, Lies Abroad
One theory as to why this administration seems to be so misguided in foreign affairs is that the standards for truth-over-bs are much higher abroad than they are at home. The difference between dishonesty in domestic as opposed to international issues is that in the latter, there are fewer actors to back you up.
Let me explain. If Trump makes a dishonest statement on a domestic front, half the country is expected to squint their eyes and say it ain’t so. Republicans will go to great strides to rephrase what Trump ‘really meant’ or they might simply go along with the dishonesty. For Trump’s overseas lies however, fewer coalitions of complicitivity exist. Few politicians inside of other nation’s governments, not even in the conservative factions, have an incentive to display full-throated support for Trump and the damaged reputation he represents. So if Trump says something asinine about the Brexit vote, for example, no UK politician whether on the right or the left has any real incentive to pretend what he said was true.
Let’s return again to Wolfsthal and Smith and what happened with the Iran Deal.
“First, the White House indicated to U.S. allies that the [Iran] deal could be saved but never undertook serious efforts to broker a supplemental agreement. Then, after violating the deal, the Trump administration had the audacity to both blame its European allies for failing to save the agreement and claim that the Iranians had violated the deal even as Iran was adhering to it.”
The White House has gotten used to these blame games domestically, on immigration, healthcare, and taxes. But abroad? Neither our allies nor our adversaries are interested in playing along.
My favorite line about modern American foreign policy comes from Senator Tim Kaine about what it means to indispensable versus exemplary.
“I want to scrap the “indispensable nation” — that might have described us at one point in our history, but, as Charles de Gaulle said, “the graveyards are filled with indispensable men.” You cannot say that without there being a hubris component to it; and that hubris, even when you are right, alienates and tends to put distance between yourself and others. Frankly, if we really try to be exemplary, we are more likely to be indispensable than if we try to be indispensable.”
This is the fantasy realm of Secretary Pompeo and President Trump. They assume the indispensability of America and American interests at every turn. Because of this, the Trump administration expects that their asks be fulfilled for no reason other than that America is strong and great and worthy of respect from foreigners.
President Trump closes his letter to Kim Jong-Un with the following:
“If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write. The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.”
Trump, who is himself responsible for canceling the summit, tells North Korea that if they change their mind then maybe talks can continue. As if it was not his administration’s choice to play hard-headed ball.
Notice how similar this ‘if you change your mind’ line mimics the administration's actions with the Iran deal, in which the White House is the one in the wrong, yet acts as if everyone else is at fault. America is gaslighting national leaders, and expecting the world not to notice.
America is gaslighting the rest of the world and expecting no one to notice.
North Korean vice-foreign minister Choe Son-hui said this prior to Trump’s decision.
“We will neither beg the US for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us.”
And yet begging is what the White House expects. That through our indispensable stature, the United States will be allowed to bully its way in and out of negotiating rooms — and that other countries, who pale in comparison to our God-given might, will beg and plead for the tiniest crumb of good faith.
This is not how the world works.