You have to negotiate with your enemies. Fact of life, whether they are autocrats or segregationist Senators. They “have” what you want, the power to stop you from achieving your goals. And of course you have to give something up, nobody surrenders power or nukes for free. This is nothing new. Call it Diplomacy 101.
Yet in 2019 stupidity has been weaponized, so people who deplore the lack of progress in Congress now discover they hate Biden because he worked with certain Senators decades ago. And people who criticize Trump for gutting the State Department argue against diplomacy, trying to dismiss small steps with North Korea, or China, as photo ops, playing at being naive that diplomacy happens in small steps.
The latest is the attack on Trump because he might “allow” North Korea to keep some nuclear capability even after some U.S. sanctions are rolled back. Well, North Korea has had nukes since 2006, so that means Bush, Obama, and now Trump have “allowed them.” Once a nation goes nuclear, they largely get to decide what they are allowed to do. Ask Israel.
One might also look at the Iran nuclear deal Obama made for perspective. It was a good thing, reduced tensions in the Middle East, and would have helped set the stage for more complex relations with the United States had Trump not canceled it, or had Obama had the political oomph to have created a formal treaty and not an “agreement.” Iran reduced its nuclear threshold state, but was never required to go to zero.
The news today shows how easy it was for Iran to ramp up from Obama-negotiated levels. So the idea Trump might seek a reduction in North Korean nuclear capability is in line with Obama’s deal with Iran, though of course any reduction of actual weapons in Korea is a bigger step forward than just a step back on capability in Iran. And even that took 20 months for Obama to pull off. In the end, if North Korea reneges on any agreement, sanctions removed can be reimposed.
People demanding Trump bull into a room and say “Nukes, number one and we’re done” want the process to fail. Wipe clean the cartoon image of Kim as a madman. North Korea currently has nuclear weapons as the guarantor of its survival; that is a starting point, not a debatable one. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The ask here is extraordinary – only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, has ever given them up, and that was because their purpose, the survival of the white apartheid regime, disappeared into history.
A new magic word dominates the MSM, “legitimacy.” Despite their near-universal hatred of Trump, when convenient he is apparently important enough somewhere to be able to bestow Legitimacy” on foreigners, which can be a bad thing vis-à-vis North Korea. The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone Else from A to Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven-some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose country has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world, already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter. The only chance those weapons might someday be gone rests on such meetings.
There is also a fear fanned by the MSM Trump will somehow give something important away, as if he might sign over the deed to Oregon to Kim late one boozy night. Negotiations are of course rarely an even exchange. But how long will you sit at the table if someone else seems to win every hand? Everyone has to at least feel they can win, so they don’t have a reason to cheat and thus stay in the game. Even when stakes are high, the good news is that it’s hard to give away “the store.” The store, whatever form it takes, usually isn’t something that can be irrevocably stopped, boxed up for shipment, or destroyed forever. Never mind the checks, balances, and bureaucratic brakes built into something as complex as the United States government, or even what may appear to be mostly a one-man-rule system. Diplomacy 101 encourages a thoughtful approach to score keeping, knowing the score only really matters at the end anyway.
Diplomacy is almost always a process, rarely a singular event. The media trying to trick us into imaging one or two or ten meetings which do not resolve a problem is failure willfully overlooks the history of the Cold War, with its many steps forward and backward, but which more or less held the peace. That latter point — the absence of war — is the standard of measure, not what one thinks of Trump.
History provides another example, Richard Nixon’s summit with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung. That 1972 meeting ended over two decades of isolation between two nuclear-armed countries, and is universally hailed as brilliant diplomacy. But looking back, the main takeaway, the Shanghai Communique, is full of vague phrases promising to meet again and somehow make “progress toward the normalization of relations” and “reduce the danger of international military conflict.” The status of Taiwan, which had almost brought the Americans and Chinese to war, was dealt with in almost poetic terms, able to be read with multiple meanings.
There was no timeline for anything, no specific next steps listed, nothing about China’s horrendous human rights situation. It took seven more years before full diplomatic relations were restored, yet scholars see the visit as one of the most impactful ever by an American president, to the point that the term “Nixon to China” is now shorthand for a breakthrough leaders’ meeting.
The China agreement (and the one in Iran) was reached the old-school way, by sitting down at a table over many months and negotiating. Diplomats consulted experts. People in suits, not in uniform, did most of the talking. The process, perhaps unfamiliar to a post-9/11 generation raised on the machismo of “you’re either with us or against us,” is called compromise. It’s an essential part of a skill that is increasingly unfamiliar to Americans: diplomacy. The goal is not to defeat an enemy, find quick fixes, solve every bilateral issue, or even get even for Otto Warmbier. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Such deft statecraft demonstrates the sort of foreign policy dexterity American voters have seldom seen exercised.
Also now take a moment to think this through from the North Korean side (know your enemy.) It would take a blind man in the dark not to notice one obvious fact about the Greater Middle East: regimes the US opposes tend to find themselves blasted into chaos once they lose their nuclear programs. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s, from the air. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya went down the drain thanks to American/NATO-inspired regime change after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions. The Israelis and the US took a serious shot at Iranian nuclear capability with the STUXNET virus. No one could miss how North Korea’s membership in the regime-change club wasn’t renewed once that country went nuclear. Consider that a pretty good reason to develop a robust nuclear weapons program — and not give it up entirely. Let’s also note the world has lived with North Korea as a nuclear state for some 13 years, through three US administrations and a change of leadership in Pyongyang.
Any nascent agreement reached does not make North Korea and the United States friends. It does, however, open the door for the two countries to talk to each other and develop the kinds of financial and trade ties that will make conflict more impractical. After more than seven decades of hostility, that would be no small accomplishment.
Future Trump-Kim-Moon tripartite negotiations (and please don’t underplay the role of South Korea’s Moon in all this) may lead to a better peace, it may set the stage for a next generation of leaders, or it may be just an asterisk in the history books alongside the sit-downs in Singapore and Vietnam when judged years from now. But to mock it for partisan political reasons this week is to prove one’s own ignorance of how these things work.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.