The Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit has died just as it was born: in a haze of confusion, presidential vanity and indifference to substance.
The open letter to Kim withdrawing from plans for a June 12 meeting in Singapore is vintage Trump, betraying too much of the man. It is openly wistful about the summit-that-wasn’t, calling it “a truly sad moment in history,” based on the airy claim that it would have been “a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth.”
It first misattributes a tough warning from a North Korean foreign ministry official to Kim himself, and then politely invites Kim to “change your mind” in response to Trump’s decision — not Kim’s — to withdraw. And it leaves an ally in the lurch, disregarding the personal appeal of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to see the summit through.
As the North Koreans seem to have understood only too well, there was never an adequate basis for negotiations. Their decision of April 20 to end long-range missile testing and to shutter their nuclear test site — an action carried out just hours before the White House issued Trump’s letter — was presented as their own voluntary decision to contribute to global disarmament, and not part of a bargaining process leading to unilateral disarmament.
Yet Trump administration officials continued to speak as if the United States were in a position to dictate an outcome to the North Koreans. In early May, during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s second visit to Pyongyang, his host, senior Workers’ Party official Kim Yong Chol, bluntly informed him that North Korea’s new restraint “is not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside.” Yet Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton persisted in talking as if North Korea could be compelled to disgorge its nuclear weapons program.
Only when the North Korean Foreign Ministry dispatched a public message rejecting Bolton’s talk of a “Libya model” — complete disarmament up front in exchange for easing sanctions later — did the White House finally seem to notice that its plans were in jeopardy.
But Trump badly mangled his own effort to put some distance between himself and Bolton’s rhetoric. Speaking off the cuff before television cameras, he said that the “Libya model” was actually the use of force, and North Korea would only have to be concerned about it if it did not comply with his dictates.
Even this blunder was insufficient to kill the summit. When the North Korean Foreign Ministry again voiced its criticism, it directed its ire at Vice President Mike Pence, who had simply repeated Trump’s ill-considered, probably improvised, talking point.
The only certainty now is that Trump won’t blame himself for failure. His most likely scapegoat will be Chinese President Xi Jinping, who Trump has accused of stiffening Kim Jong Un’s spine. Trump is likely to lash out by looking for new opportunities to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, something that will do little to enhance international cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. Kim’s decision to refrain from further nuclear testing and long-range missile testing will probably go a long way toward easing pressure from Beijing.
However else he may be remembered, Trump won’t be considered a master of foreign policy. By seizing on a summit proposal relayed by South Korean officials, he has undone much of the leverage created by his own administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea. This is part of a wider pattern of impulsivity.
In recent weeks, he has alienated America’s major allies and trade partners in Europe by reinstating trade sanctions against Iran despite its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Trying to pick a fight with China on trade, he settled on steel tariffs affecting other partners like Japan. He now appears ready to double down by making a similar move on cars.
What happens now is impossible to predict, but it should help to clarify an essential truth about international politics: no country, not even the world’s most powerful, can dictate outcomes as it sees fit. All successes depend on maintaining a web of relationships around the world.
In his letter to Kim, Trump wrote, “I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The results of a one-man foreign policy speak for themselves.