About six months ago, attendees at a Trump rally were so giddy about the president’s masterly diplomatic maneuvering in supposedly convincing North Korea to suspend testing of nuclear weapons that they began to chant “Nobel! Nobel!,” taking even President Trump by surprise (though he later claimed that “everyone thinks” he deserved one). Not long after, Trump met with Kim Jong Un and returned to declare that he had achieved what presidents had tried and failed to do for decades:
Well, about that …
North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at 16 hidden bases that have been identified in new commercial satellite images, a network long known to American intelligence agencies but left undiscussed as President Trump claims to have neutralized the North’s nuclear threat.
The satellite images suggest that the North has been engaged in a great deception: It has offered to dismantle a major launching site — a step it began, then halted — while continuing to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of conventional and nuclear warheads.
The existence of the ballistic missile bases, which North Korea has never acknowledged, contradicts Mr. Trump’s assertion that his landmark diplomacy is leading to the elimination of a nuclear and missile program that the North had warned could devastate the United States.
Who could have predicted something like this would happen? Pretty much everyone. Except, apparently, the president of the United States. In fact, it’s precisely Trump’s naive view of foreign policy that brought us to this point.
Let’s recall what happened at that summit in June, when the two leaders signed an agreement under which the North Koreans promised to “work toward” denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. That pledge was almost completely meaningless; as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me at the time, “It’s important to note that that is a weaker commitment to denuclearization than the regime has made in the past.”
But the president naturally declared victory. “He’s de-nuking, I mean he’s de-nuking the whole place,” Trump said, an assertion that was obviously false. One can only hope Trump was lying and didn’t actually believe that was what was happening.
So that summit, which seemed so dramatic at the time, turned out to be a failure. Why? Because Trump is gripped by a fundamental misconception about foreign policy.
For Trump, everything is personal and everything is about him. He doesn’t need to understand the history of our relationships with other nations, the forces acting on an an adversary or the incentives its leadership faces. He’s the world’s greatest dealmaker! He’ll get in a room with the guy, employ the same skills he uses to drive down the price on gold-leaf wallpaper for one of his buildings and, bada boom bada bing, we’ve got ourselves a historic bilateral agreement.
You can see it in the way Trump talks about foreign relations. He never tries to understand where other countries are coming from or what they are seeking; it’s all about whether they’re screwing us over and whether he’ll “get along” with another country’s leader, as though a friendly personal relationship will make anything possible. “I hope we get along well. I think we get along well,” he said about Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We had a great chemistry, not good, but great,” he said about Chinese President Xi Jinping. “I liked him and he liked me a lot.” A few weeks ago he described his relationship with Kim this way: “I was really being tough, and so was he, and we’d go back and forth. And then we fell in love. Okay? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
But alas, love can be fleeting. The problem is that no matter how many beautiful letters Kim sends to Trump, the North Korean leader still sees nuclear weapons as the key to his survival. As far as he’s concerned, his weapons mean that no great power would dare to invade his country and destroy his regime; without them, he could wind up like Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gaddafi, i.e., deposed and dead.
It’s vital to understand that while Kim is a brutal dictator, that’s an absolutely rational position for him to take. Which means that getting him to give up those nuclear weapons is difficult and complicated. In fact, it’s possible that there’s nothing we can offer him in exchange that would be sufficiently enticing.
Trump is hardly the first U.S. president to struggle with North Korea’s willingness to deceive and break its promises, nor is he the first who failed to find something compelling enough to offer North Korea in exchange for denuclearization. But no president before him was so naive as to proclaim victory after having accomplished so little. I suppose that makes Trump’s foreign policy just the same as everything else he does.