Then a week later, when Trump re-RSVPed to the summit, critics focused on the photo ops he is impulsively giving the North Korean regime, which craves the legitimacy they bestow. For example, former ambassador to South Korea and Iraq Christopher Hill complained the North Koreans have already “gotten the whole enchilada.”
But instead of pouncing on any setback or nitpicking any advance, Democrats and progressives should gird themselves for the possibility that the president will not only get a North Korean deal, but that they will have little choice but to defend it and swallow any subsequent poll bump.
There are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical of Trump’s negotiating skills. North Korea has little incentive to sacrifice the leverage it has gained by attaining nuclear weapons. Arms control agreements hinge on the details, and Trump hates details. Plus, the summit is a rush job, lacking the groundwork typically needed to seal a complex deal. Historians decades from now will likely cite arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis’ assessment of the Trump administration’s handling of the North Korean portfolio: “This is a total goat rodeo.”
I happen to share Lewis’ chief insight into Trump: “He is an ego-driven person . the details are not something that interest him or that he would have any capacity to deal with . He wanted the meeting for the basest of reasons and that’s why it got as far as it did.”
But despite my liberal bent and general antipathy toward the president, I believe Trump’s fervent narcissism is exactly why his North Korean negotiations will go even farther: He desperately wants a deal with his name on it to prove he’s the best dealmaker of all time. And getting to yes with Kim Jong Un? That’s the ultimate deal.
Beyond mere ego, the president has another driving motivation – to stop getting “ripped off” by countries that want our military protection. Ever since 1987, Trump has complained about countries “taking advantage of the United States.” As far back as 2011, Trump put South Korea on his gripe list: “Why aren’t they paying us? South Korea makes a fortune . and they make a fortune largely because of us.” He kept making similar claims on the 2016 campaign trail, though the claims were debunked, as South Korea does pay America about $800 million a year in security costs – to say nothing of the intangible benefits the U.S. gets from having a robust military presence in China’s backyard.
How badly does Trump want to pull out of the Korean Peninsula? He flirted with a unilateral withdrawal of troops from South Korea in February, and reportedly ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for withdrawing troops in anticipation of a peace agreement. The White House denies giving the Pentagon such orders, but regardless of the exact truth, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Trump is not terribly invested in maintaining a robust military alliance with South Korea. Moreover, South Korea doesn’t appear all that invested either; its leftist President Moon Jae-in is seeking an official end to the Korean War, a precursor to a troop withdrawal.
Even though these diplomatic stars are coming into alignment, a Trump hater might find it incredulous to believe someone so prone to offensive remarks and so allergic to policy specifics could deliver a delicate diplomatic agreement.
That is exactly how liberals viewed Ronald Reagan during his presidency, yet he struck a historic arms control agreement with Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
Before that point, Reagan had rankled the left by calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and cracking wise on a hot mic, “I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Even when Reagan developed a strong working relationship with Gorbachev, he would also irritate his communist counterpart with bad jokes mocking the creaky Soviet economy and bureaucracy.
Reagan was also memorably mocked as an “amiable dunce.” That was a cheap shot, but it was the case that, as described by Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, “Reagan lacked a technical grasp of any issue, and he was usually bored by briefings.” In fact, at one point during the October 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting, Reagan welcomed an ambitious proposal by Gorbachev by saying, “this seems only slightly different from the U.S. position,” only to be sternly corrected in front of the Soviets by his Secretary of State George Shultz, who interjected, “There are important differences.”
Of course, Reykjavik ended in a bust, with Reagan storming out after refusing to scrap plans for a space-based missile defense system in exchange for deep cuts in nuclear weapons. Liberals were aghast that Reagan would walk away from a good deal, and their view of the president as beholden to the military-industrial complex solidified.
But the left’s caricature of Reagan overlooked his deep-seated – and, perhaps, well-cloaked – desire to end the threat of nuclear war.
At Reykjavik, before leaving in a huff, Reagan blurted out, “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” to which Gorbachev concurred. So despite the summit’s failure, both leaders saw sincere interest in arms control from the other. A few months later, as chronicled in the book Way Out There in the Blue by Frances FitzGerald, Gorbachev’s science advisers convinced him that Reagan’s “Star Wars” program was a pipe dream not worth the haggle. (Gorbachev would later tell Reagan, “Go ahead and deploy it . I think you’re wasting money.”) When in early 1987, Gorbachev proposed banning intermediate-range nuclear forces, Reagan jumped at the opportunity and their aides soon hammered out the INF Treaty, marking a fundamental shift in U.S.-Soviet relations.
Is Trump another Reagan? I highly doubt Trump is guided by any noble impulses, but based on what was known about Reagan at the time of his first term, I wouldn’t have said that about him either. Regardless, a Trump driven by ego and penny-pinching nationalism can still produce a similar result. A president doesn’t have to be a nice person, or even a knowledgeable person, to forge an arms control deal. He just has to want it badly enough.
Having said that, getting a deal doesn’t necessarily mean getting a good deal. What steps the Trump administration considers sufficient for North Korean “denuclearization” is unclear. How fast is the timeline for disarmament? Will it cover short-range missiles that can reach Japan and South Korea? Can North Korea keep a civil nuclear program? How robust are the inspections? An overeager Trump could well craft a weak agreement that gives him the laudatory headlines he wants, but actually allows Kim to retain enough of a nuclear program for concerns to linger about cheating.
How then, should Trump’s critics on the left react? Should they emulate conservative critics of Barack Obama’s Iranian nuclear deal, and try to naysay it to death? Should they accuse Trump of scrapping the Iran deal out of spite, only to enter to a similar, or even flimsier, agreement with North Korea just to feed his ego? If they do, they will find it awkward political ground on which to stand.
If there is one foreign policy principle that binds the Democratic Party, it is that diplomacy is always preferable to war, and so it’s always advisable to give a peace agreement, no matter how tenuous, a chance to succeed. Almost any North Korean agreement would be worth defending on those grounds. Better for the left to adhere to its own principles and seize the opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus on aggressive diplomacy than to sacrifice principles for political expediency.
Such a stance wouldn’t require deifying Trump as the master of the deal – Democrats would still have grounds to knock him over his moves to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal, the Israel-Palestine peace process and the Paris climate agreement – but they can give credit where credit is due, and use the example of successful diplomacy to push for more of it.
Democrats who praise the deal would help enhance any “North Korea bump” in the polls, but that’s a price they will have to pay. It will likely be only a short-term price, as foreign policy achievements rarely overtake economic issues come Election Day. The Camp David Accords didn’t save Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton’s second term peace agreements – the Dayton Accords and the Good Friday Agreement – didn’t make a ripple in the 2000 president election.
The path to any North Korea deal is unlikely to be a straight one. Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry had to walk away from the table three times when negotiating with the Iranians. It took Reagan and Gorbachev three summits to get to the INF treaty. Trump’s brief fit of pique probably isn’t the last hiccup in this process, and Democrats and progressives shouldn’t assume every setback is proof of imminent failure. It’s in their long-term interest for North Korean diplomacy to succeed, and they should be preparing for the moment when it does. Because the alternative – a military crisis with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong Un – is too awful to contemplate.