It’s possible that, by pulling out of the U.S.-North Korea summit planned for next month, President Trump is setting up a future negotiation where the United States gets a better deal. But it’s far more likely that Trump’s reversal will lower the chances for successful diplomacy, strain alliances, harm U.S. credibility, increase tensions and make peace and security harder to achieve.
The official White House line is that Trump boldly decided to meet with Kim Jong Un to test North Korea’s willingness to give up its nukes; then Trump boldly called off the meeting when he concluded Kim wasn’t serious. Trump’s Thursday letter to Kim offered him a chance to calm down his rhetoric, give in to Trump’s demands and come back to the table later.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had to defend scuttling the summit he circled the globe twice to arrange, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that U.S. policy on North Korea will now return to where it was two months ago: pressuring North Korea in conjunction with our allies.
“In some ways, it’s situation normal. The pressure campaign continues,” Pompeo testified. “I don’t know what to say. . . . Our process remains the same.”
Pompeo explained that the North Korean government failed to respond to recent private outreach. Publicly, North Korean officials have been lashing out at national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Pence for invoking Libya in the context of their negotiations. The North Koreans were certainly acting badly; it’s what they do. The Trump administration should know there are always ups and downs when dealing with Pyongyang.
If you thought the Trump-Kim summit was always a folly, Trump’s withdrawal is good news. Now, Trump won’t get outmaneuvered by Kim. It’s true that expectations rose out of control. The president may have realized that barreling into a high-level summit without proper preparation was fairly reckless, although he argued consistently it wasn’t.
But by cutting off the diplomacy in the middle with no certainty of what comes next, Trump has opened up a world of possible consequences, most of them bad. For one, “maximum pressure” is already loosening and will be extremely difficult to replace. The idea that squeezing North Korea more will bring it back to the table is aspirational at best.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance is headed for tough times. Pompeo didn’t deny that Trump neglected to give President Moon Jae-in warning that he was scrapping the summit. Moon was in town just two days ago. His legacy hangs in the balance. Trump made Moon lose face and put distance between the two allies.
Pompeo could lose credibility, not only with Kim but also any world leader who now can’t be sure he speaks for the president. Pompeo himself must now pivot from his optimistic rhetoric about bringing North Korea into the 21st century and toe the more hawkish Bolton line of pushing more sanctions all the time.
China could take advantage, putting itself forward as the new key broker in diplomacy. By pulling North Korea away from the United States (and by extension South Korea), we may end up pushing Kim back into Beijing’s arms. Xi Jinping now holds the key to enforcing sanctions and getting back to negotiations. He might use that leverage against Trump to get concessions in trade and other areas.
Perhaps the biggest risk is that Trump himself loses interest in North Korean diplomacy, feeling burned and calculating that his best chances for a Nobel Peace Prize lie elsewhere. Trump’s personal momentum was driving the whole process at blistering speeds; slowing it down may sacrifice his attention.
Internally, Trump’s more hawkish advisers, including Bolton, triumphed over those more invested in the summit, such as Pompeo, who testified Wednesday he wanted the meeting to happen. The skeptics persuaded Trump the risks of diplomacy did not match the realistic expected rewards. But the real problem is not with the policy; it was how it was handled.
“We should have never legitimized a pariah regime without first setting clear boundaries,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Thursday. “But in hastily agreeing to a summit and then being the one to walk away, President Trump must understand he has now weakened and further isolated the United States.”
As with Iran, Trump’s second-year foreign policy allows for no compromise, no predictability and no clear explanation of what happens next when the United States turns on a dime. Unpredictability as a tactic only works on adversaries when it’s intentional — for allies, it’s always bad.
Maybe a deal with North Korea was never in the cards. But Trump’s actions on North Korea have broader regional and international implications. The least the administration can do now is work diligently to mitigate the risk that Trump’s about-face does more damage than good.