Sophisticated readers of The Washington Post are probably drowning in takes of what the Trump-Kim summit outcome means. Some smart people see it as a capitulation of sorts by President Trump. Michael J. Green writes in Foreign Policy: “the president of the United States demonstrated that he has the authority to give unconditional pardons not only to felons at home, but also on the international stage.” On the other hand, Trump received praise from unlikely quarters. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) described the outcome as “a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and moving toward a more peaceful future.”
As a fully paid-up member of the Fraternal Order of Very Serious Foreign Policy Folks, I know I have to opine about this event. It’s hard, though, for three reasons. First, we are already in Hour Twenty of Take-a-Palooza, and I can sense people heading for the exits.
Second, I cannot watch without laughing this bonkers video that the Trump White House showed to Kim to push for a successful summit resolution:
Seriously, they played parts of it while I was giving an interview to Boston Public Radio, and I lost it on air. And I am not even sure that this was the most bonkers part of a surreal summit. But, damn, it’s close.
Third, these tweets from Nate Silver caught my eye:
I might not be able to keep a straight face during that White House video, but I think I can answer Silver’s query: In the short run, the summit mildly reduces the chances of a nuclear war. In the long run, it makes no difference whatsoever.
The short term first: the full text of the statement is, to be honest, a nothingburger. There is no deal, just a bunch of super-vague promises. North Korea’s pledge “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is way weaker than what was initially promised and way weaker that the pledges its made in similar-looking documents over the past 25 years.
That does not matter in the short run, however, for a few reasons. Even if North Korea has little incentive to denuclearize, it has many incentives to hint at forward progress. The appearance of compliance will weaken the sanctions regime further. Kim will continue to be feted by others.
More importantly, what I wrote three months ago carries even greater force now:
With each passing day, Trump gets more invested in the idea of having this meeting. He’s tweeting out nice things about North Korea. … Mike Pompeo, actually said on a Sunday morning show that Pyongyang had “allowed” joint US-ROK exercises, like anyone needs Kim Jong Un’s permission on these matters. The more Trump hypes up the meeting, the bigger the fall if it gets scrubbed. The president badly wants this to happen.
This is even more true now. Trump might be willing to walk away if the illusion of progress is broken, but not before doing everything possible to maintain that illusion for as long as possible. For the next few weeks, then, we are likely to see more of the following tweets:
Over the long run, Singapore changed none of the fundamentals of the situation. North Korea still has a track record of agreeing to things and then reneging on its agreements. So, for that matter, does Donald Trump. It seems extremely unlikely that a regime that believes its security is intertwined with its nuclear capabilities will surrender them. It seems even more unlikely that hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton are going to roll over and not try to provoke Pyongyang again. Most important, there is no evidence that the fundamental policy preferences of the key actors (North Korea, China, the United States) have changed on this issue.
That said, the primary reason the long-term odds have not changed is because those odds were not as high as everyone thought six months ago (myself included). Back in January, Michael Horowitz and Elizabeth Saunders concluded that structural factors (capabilities, geography) limit the likelihood of armed conflict. None of those factors has changed after the summit, either.
The Singapore summit produced great theatrics. Beyond that, everything that was said in Singapore could be easily revocable. So embrace the season of conciliatory rhetoric between president Trump and Kim Jong Un. Just realize that even if the rhetoric begins to curdle, the fundamental situation will not have changed all that much.