Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Art of No Deal

The Hanoi summit spectacularly failed. Most foreign policy analysts believe it was clear weeks before the planned summit that North Korea was not going to offer more than a shutdown of Yongbyon nuclear facility and demand significant sanctions relief. Although President Trump tried to lower expectations a few days before the event, his approach to diplomacy, particularly with Kim Jong-un, implies that he can by pure force of personality and economic incentives deliver a deal. And, there’s no doubt he thought he would get a photogenic signing ceremony as an event was scheduled and had to be cancelled. Of course, Kim, writer of romantic letters, also had reason to believe a smitten Trump would bend in his direction.

In addition to both leaders’ belief in their personal chemistry was the assumption that since only Trump and Kim can make the decisions, why waste time with preliminary negotiations? But, that assumption was also overstated. Kim has to deal with elite opinion from his party and military. Trump also has constituents, such as defense hawks in Congress and the party. And, of course, allies Japan and South Korea have a vital stake in the outcome. Although, Trump’s major constraint may be that he has been so critical of previous efforts at negotiations with North Korea under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama and the Iran nuclear agreement that anything that looks only partial would be judged a failure.

Although Trump clearly deserves credit for ending North Korea’s testing and the general tone of the relationship, there are clear limits to his top down, “I can do this alone with charisma and economic promises.” Frankly, there was a widespread sense of relief the summit did not produce a flawed agreement that the U.S. was going to have difficulties describing, as Trump did after the Singapore summit: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shake hands at Hanoi summit, Feb. 27,
2019 | The White via The Australian Institute of International Affairs

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