In their “unprecedented” one-on-one summit in Singapore, US President Donald Trump announced that he would suspend joint military operations with South Korea. In return, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un agreed to…um, er, let me check. OK, nothing. He agreed to do nothing in return.
Read the “agreement” signed by Trump and Kim as the result of their meeting. What did they agree to do? To hold further talks. Here is the essence of the statement: “The United States and the DPRK commit to hold follow-on negotiations.” Yes, that’s right. After a lot of bluster about Trump disrupting the diplomatic status quo, we got the ultimate bit of status quo diplomacy: a meeting to agree to hold meetings.
Trump and Kim certainly repeated the broad goals of the US offering “security guarantees” to North Korea—i.e., promising we won’t invade, which we weren’t going to do anyway—in exchange for North Korea committing to “denuclearization,” getting rid of the nuclear weapons they built after making previous agreements not to build them. You can see the problem. Any such declaration by the North Koreans would have to be followed by specific declarations about how they’re going to denuclearize and how we’re going to verify they’ve done it. We certainly shouldn’t give anything in return for mere promises, because the Kim regime has broken them so many times before.
Seriously, every single agreement North Korea has ever made about not developing nuclear weapons, not testing them, not testing missiles, dismantling nuclear facilities—at least ten of them, going back to 1985—they have violated, sometimes only weeks later. So what reason does President Trump have to think this time is different?
The North Koreans are clearly playing to his vanity. In his post-meeting press conference, Trump kept repeating that Kim is really going to live up to his agreements now, because he is dealing with “a different president.” There is no idea Trump likes to play with more than the notion that he is special and unique and by his mere presence can do things nobody else can. As he put it in his post-meeting press conference, “I just feel very strongly, my instinct, my ability or talent, they want to make a deal.” And also: “That’s what I do. My whole life has been deals. I’ve done great at it. That’s what I do.”
In a video that will seem almost comical in retrospect, Trump made an appeal to Kim’s vanity, trying to build him up as a great man who changed history by making a radical choice: “When a man is presented with one chance that may never be repeated, what will he choose? To show vision and leadership? Or not?”
This may not be very revealing about Kim’s intentions, but the video sure is a document of Trump’s own grandiose self-image. He really wants a “historic” deal that would make him look like a great leader—which is exactly the mistake made by every previous administration in negotiating with North Korea. To the diplomatic establishment, the appearance of a deal is always more important than its substance.
To be fair, I don’t expect much from this kind of international meeting. Generally speaking, if they are going to accomplish anything important, it will all be negotiated ahead of time. The leaders just show up to shake hands and smile for the cameras and try to look as if they like each other. It is mostly theater, and from that perspective, Trump’s praise for Kim right now might be just as fake as his Twitter saber-rattling was last year.
On the whole, though, if Donald Trump’s international diplomacy is theater, it is bad theater. Consider the contrast. Trump’s meeting with Kim was all smiles and patting on the shoulder, as if he has adopted Kim as his new reality-TV “celebrity apprentice.” This followed on the heels of an acrimonious meeting with the world’s leading free societies, the G-7, where Trump went to bat for Russia against them and followed up with a very public spat with our closest and (usually) friendliest neighbor, Canada. Note that one of the things Trump held out to North Korea as a benefit of making a deal with the US was the possibility of trade—which he suddenly regards as a problem and “unfair” when we trade with our allies.
Even in his post-meeting press conference in Singapore, Trump couldn’t resist complaining about South Korea, hinting that two of the reasons he’s canceling joint military exercises are because South Korea doesn’t pay enough money for them, and because the South Koreans don’t give us a good enough trade deal.
Yes, we’ve done exercises for a long period of time working South Korea. And we call them war games, that I call them war games, and they’re tremendously expensive, the amount of money that we spend on that is incredible. And South Korea contributes, but not a hundred percent, which is certainly a subject that we have to talk to them about also. And that has to do with the military expense and also the trade. So we’re doing that, we actually have a new deal with South Korea in terms of the trade deal. But we have to talk to them, and we have to talk to many countries about treating us fairly.
So to translate: Trump trusts that Kim Jong-Un wants to make a deal, but he thinks the South Koreans are deadbeats who take advantage of the US. That is the style of Trump’s international theater: broadcasting friendship to our enemies and belligerently finding fault with our allies.
For those who will dismiss this complaint as reflexive opposition to Trump—which is a reflexive defense of Trump—I will point out that I said the same kind of thing (or worse) when previous administrations acted this way. Am I supposed to ignore it this time because the president belongs to a different party? Am I supposed to make excuses for it because I’m caught up in a cult of personality? Am I supposed to go along with the idea that this is all theater anyway, so it doesn’t matter what the real-world results are?
I’m not going to do that, because there are real-world consequences to this presidential theater, and at this point, the most likely result will be to encourage an enemy while splitting the US from its allies. The most positive result would be that none of it makes any difference in the long run, and the next administration starts over again with all the same problems. Either way, it hasn’t delivered the kind of historic breakthrough portrayed in that video, or in the self-aggrandizing fantasies in President Trump’s mind.