Nevertheless, this is still a monumental faceplant on Trump’s part. He’s the one who agreed to this summit on a whim, partly because no president before him had done it, and partly because he believes his powers as a negotiator are so overwhelming that he could come away with a fantastic deal that would get him praise from everyone and maybe even that Nobel Prize that “everyone thinks” he deserves, or so he believes.
One has to marvel at just how spectacularly Trump and the other key members of his administration have screwed up this opportunity. And it all stemmed from a basic problem: The man who thinks he’s the greatest negotiator in the world has absolutely no idea how to negotiate.
That’s because the most important part of a successful negotiation is understanding the person on the other side of the table. What do they want? What do they fear? What might they be willing to give up? What incentives do they face? What forces are pushing against them? If you don’t know those things, you can’t be successful. And as Trump has shown time and again, he just doesn’t care about the person on the other side of the table. He thinks that negotiation is about bullying: Show them you’re stronger than they are, threaten to abandon the negotiation, and they’ll back down and give you what you want. As far as he’s concerned, all negotiations are zero-sum; either you’re the winner or the loser, and you have to be the winner.
When it comes to North Korea, there is one fundamental fact that should have guided the Trump administration’s strategy: Like any dictator, Kim Jong Un lives in fear of being deposed, and he believes — not without reason — that his nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantee of his continued power and even his very life. The fact that he just shut down a nuclear test site doesn’t diminish this in the slightest; the North Koreans got what they needed from that site, and if they want to, they can open another.
Once you understand how Kim sees his nuclear weapons, you realize a couple of things. First, you’re going to have to offer some pretty fantastic incentives to get him to give up those weapons. Second, the negotiations have to proceed with care, because he won’t give them up unless he feels safe and reassured.
But instead of trying to make Kim feel safe and reassured, the Trump administration did exactly the opposite. They offered threats and bluster, which were bound to have the effect of convincing Kim that we want to overthrow him and he needs his nuclear weapons now more than ever.
Consider this series of statements:
- National security adviser John Bolton said “the Libya model” is the one we should follow with North Korea. On the surface, he was talking about the deal made with Moammar Gaddafi in 2003 to give up his nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic assistance. But as Bolton knew full well, North Korean officials regularly bring up Gaddafi’s experience, as well as that of Saddam Hussein, as the reason they should never give up their nuclear weapons. Gaddafi and Hussein gave up the quest for nuclear weapons and were later deposed and killed. Many speculated that Bolton, who has been eager for a military strike on North Korea, made this incredibly provocative statement in an attempt to spur the North Koreans to abandon negotiation.
- Once someone explained all that to Trump, he publicly said that we wouldn’t be pursuing the “Libya model,” though in his statement he appeared to think the Libya model referred only to the U.S. role in Gaddafi’s ouster. (“In Libya, we decimated that country. That country was decimated.”) But in trying to clarify Bolton’s remarks, Trump only repeated the threat to depose and kill Kim, saying that Libya’s experience shows “what will take place if we don’t make a deal.”
- In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Vice President Pence again repeated the threat that the United States would depose and kill Kim if an agreement were not reached. “You know, there were some talk about the Libya model last week. And you know, as the president made clear, you know, this will only end like the Libya Model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal,” he said. “Some people saw that as a threat,” said the interviewer. “I think it’s more of a fact,” Pence replied.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress yesterday, “We have made zero concessions to Chairman Kim to date, and we have no intention of doing so.”
So what does this all add up to? Kim Jong Un already believes that as formidable as his conventional deterrent might be (all that artillery aimed at Seoul), the fact that he has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them all the way to the U.S. mainland are the most important deterrents against an effort by the United States to depose him. Instead of trying to convince him that we aren’t interested in removing him and he should feel secure enough to give up those weapons, the Trump administration has done exactly the opposite: worked to make him feel more threatened and less secure.
That’s on top of the fact that Trump just pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, in which that country curtailed its nuclear program and allowed in international inspectors, only to see this president say that it wasn’t good enough and renege on the deal. If you were Kim, would you trust the United States right now?
That’s what Trump just can’t seem to wrap his head around. Even if we’re the most powerful country on Earth, if we want Kim to give up his nukes, he’s going to have to trust us. And Trump is doing everything possible to make that impossible.
Finally, we should say that there can certainly be an agreement without a summit between the two leaders; there have been agreements with North Korea before without such a meeting. In fact, that might be better, because if you put Trump in a room with Kim, there’s no telling what he might say, do or give away. So today’s development doesn’t mean there’s no more chance that we might get North Korea to denuclearize. It might still be salvageable.
But if there’s a way to screw up that effort, you can be sure Donald Trump is going to find it.