Nearly three months ago, Donald Trump reaffirmed his status as a maverick who’s liberated from the conventions that shackled past presidents by giving a North Korean despot something North Korean despots have sought for decades. Today, the planned bilateral summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has collapsed. In the intervening weeks, those conventions of which Trump is so disdainful demonstrated their value.
In retrospect, it is a marvel that the prospect of a summit between the American president and the scion of the Communist dynasty in Pyongyang was taken so seriously. Initially, it took Donald Trump a whopping 45 minutes to accept Kim’s overture. In that timeframe, surely complex matters such as American grand strategy, Kim’s domestic position, our complex and conflicting regional alliances, and achievable objectives got short shrift.
Expectations for the summit were unreasonably high almost from the outset. Those high hopes were made physically manifest in the form of 500 collector’s coins commemorating the presumably historic event. For a time, though, those expectations did not seem entirely fanciful.
North Korea’s openness to secret contacts with Trump administration officials, including the CIA director and vice president, were welcome changes of heart. When Trump tweeted about Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, North Korea did not correct him. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea even appeared to drop its opposition to military drills on the Peninsula and the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Mutual concessions seemed to mark the start of a new era. For a time, progress seemed possible. But that progress was only illusory.
This week, North Korea formally closed its nuclear test site. But North Korea’s test site collapsed in October of last year, taking as many as 200 trained professionals with it. Closing a defunct installation isn’t much of a concession. Nor, for that matter, is the surrender of American hostages. Indeed, the only reason to take hostages is to be able to give them up in a negotiation to generate concessions from your interlocutor without having surrendered anything of strategic value. The “peace treaty” that South Korea negotiated with North Korea is likely invalid because the U.S. and China—both parties to the 1953 cease-fire—were not part of the process. Recently, North Korea has rediscovered its opposition to military drills on the peninsula and its commitment to maintaining a nuclear arsenal, and communications between Washington and Pyongyang had broken down. The only thing the two parties agreed upon after ten weeks of preparatory work was on the summit itself. That is a recipe for disaster.
With no clarity on core objectives, the best that anyone could have hoped for from this summit was amicable ambiguity. But the more likely scenario was confusion, mutual hostility, and the closing off of lines of communication. It was a mark of maturity for the president to cut his losses before any irreplaceable American interests were sacrificed. That is, after all, how summits like these tend to end.
There are not many historical examples of bilateral summitry between two hostile powers, but the examples that we have to draw lessons from are not encouraging.
“I have never been so proud of my President as I have been in these sessions and particularly this afternoon,” Secretary of State George Schultz told reporters moments after Ronald Reagan’s summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, failed. Schultz put a positive spin on this summit’s failure, just as Reagan officials had the year earlier when a similar meeting at Geneva, Switzerland, did not produce anything other than an exchange of familiarities. But Reagan’s expectations for the summit were not met, and we are all better off as a result. As I wrote in April:
Had Reagan succeeded on his terms, the deal struck between the two powers in Iceland would have badly strained American relations with its nuclear-armed European allies and provided an economic lifeline to Moscow that might have postponed the Soviet Union’s implosion. In retrospect, the president’s willingness to walk away from the table set the stage for one of the most astonishing events of the 20th Century: the peaceful end of the Cold War and the fall of European communism.
The perils of a failed summit have proved all too real. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, stands as a warning to headstrong presidents seeking to leave their mark on the world. Kennedy studied closely the cataclysmic miscalculations made in Munich in 1939 and believed himself capable of avoiding the traps into which Neville Chamberlain had fallen, but he made his own unique mistakes. The young president allowed himself to be harangued by Khrushchev, which left the Soviet leader convinced of his weakness. “It was just a disaster,” said Assistant Secretary of State Paul Nitze. “I’m scared to death about what will happen next.” His trepidation was warranted. Within two months, Khrushchev ordered the walling in of East Berliners. One year after that, Soviet high command approved the deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba, touching off the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known.
The collapse of a fraught summit between the leader of the free world and the abhorrent head of one of the world’s most repulsive regimes does not signal the end of diplomacy. Indeed, it is a hopeful sign; a failed summit between the two countries’ principals might have closed off pathways to further negotiations. Negotiations between functionaries at lower governmental levels do not carry that risk.
Nor should Western diplomatic professionals worry that Trump has undermined Kim’s domestic position to the point that he will have to adopt a more confrontational posture and appease his regime’s hardline elements. A confrontational North Korea is the status quo ante; not optimal, but not an unknown quantity either. From Soviet generals to the Iranian mullahs, Westerners are frequently in thrall to the idea that a given interlocutor is surely preferable to uncompromising alternatives waiting in the wings. That is the appeaser’s construct. A deal that preserves the longevity of this criminal regime without a verifiable and long-term solution to the threat that a summit is designed to address is far worse than no summit at all.
Trump deserves credit both for being open to outside-the-box solutions to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and for recognizing when it was time to cut his losses on a bad idea. In the end, if maximum pressure on Pyongyang, Beijing, Moscow, and the rest of the rogues who support this disgraceful state convinces the Kim regime to make some hard choices about its survival, Trump may actually deserve that Nobel Prize.