As the media spin changes from “legitimizing a despot” to “President Trump lost a historic chance of peace,” it is important to remember a fundamental reality of global politics. Sometimes, ambiguity and unpredictability is the best negotiating tactic.
President Trump’s summit cancellation letter to Kim Jong-Un subtly references nuclear deterrence working both ways, and that the optics favor the United States. Consider the ongoing scenario. American hostages who were jailed in North Korea are now back in the United States. Kim Jong-Un just publicly destroyed his nuclear testing tunnels. South Korean President Moon Jae-In is on record saying Trump should win a Nobel Prize for his willingness to bring peace to the peninsula. But Trump walked away from this the moment Kim threatened nuclear war.
China’s President Xi Jinping, who did a photo shoot looking like a poignant Greek philosopher lecturing Kim, the young Roman senator, now rests with the idea that he has essentially zero control over any of these proceedings. If foreign policy is all about optics, resonance to the domestic audience, and regime stability, as some international relations theory suggests, Kim, Xi, and Moon are toast.
‘Sticking to the Carcass of Dead Policies’
“The commonest error in politics,” Lord Salisbury said in 1877 regarding Britain’s foreign policy with Russia and Eastern Europe, “is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” American foreign policy towards North Korea faced such a scenario. The stalemate of the last two decades was predicated on two simple scenarios: that China would liberalize politically, and in turn pressure North Korea to liberalize, and that the liberal international order would prevail.
As Francis Fukuyama found out, to his intense discomfort and a new book deal, both those assertions were flawed. China didn’t politically liberalize. Instead, China got the taste of being a great power and is now cozying up with the European Union to confront the United States. North Korea developed nuclear weapons. The much vaunted “liberal order,” which was never an “order” per se, but rather a form of hegemonic peace backed by American martial prowess, is increasingly looking fragile. American relative power is equilibrating with other rising and revanchist great powers, and imperial fatigue setting in.
In light of that, the summit with North Korea looked like a way out of the quagmire. It all started with Trump calling Kim a “little Rocket Man,” and Kim calling Trump a “Dotard” while shooting missiles in the Sea of Japan. There were reasons to celebrate, of course.
Kim’s overtures looked promising, but simplistic. The South Korean leader incidentally called for Trump to get a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the North to the negotiation table. If Barack Obama can get a Nobel Prize for being elected as the first black president of the United States, Trump is at least definitely eligible if peace breaks out in the Korean peninsula.
It’s Very Rare for States to Give Up Power
However, there were reasons to be skeptical about Kim’s promises. Regardless of regime type, states don’t usually give up power on their own, especially power that assures their survival in their current form. The international system we inhabit is anarchical, and nation-states simply don’t trust bigger powers.
Consider the only two instances where a nation-state gave up its nuclear capabilities. Apartheid-era South Africa destroyed nuclear weapons and capabilities, so it didn’t fall into the hands of Marxist revolutionaries. The second was Ukraine, which for a short period of time was the third-largest nuclear power in the world (after the United States and Russia) immediately after the Soviet collapse. Ukraine gave it all up, with the explicit guarantee that Russia will never invade its neighbor and if it does, the United Kingdom and United States would provide deterrence.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad also wanted nuclear weapons. Gaddafi gave up the pursuit voluntarily after 9/11, and allied himself with the West, hunting down Islamists. Assad’s facility was bombed by Israel. Consider how that worked out for Ukraine or Gaddafi. Assad would have met Gaddafi’s fate, too, if not for the Russian nuclear umbrella.
That is precisely the lesson Kim junior drew from these episodes. Contrary to popular wisdom, CIA research suggests Kim is extremely rational. He’s savage to his own people, but completely logical in foreign affairs. Any dictatorship is inherently built on a system of cronyism, where the primary motive for existence is, therefore, regime survival.
Yes, dictators do overreach sometimes. But those are either miscalculation about adversaries’ resolve or a false understanding of the balance of power. Neither is true for North Korea. In the eventuality of any war initiated by North Korea, Kim knows it will be his last act before he and his entire regime are obliterated. Kim’s intention is therefore to stall that scenario, to project a force that can impose an insufferable cost on South Korea, Japan, and even the United States.
The entire rationale for Kim to develop even crude forms of nuclear weapons is to declare that yes, the Kim regime might be destroyed in a war, but so will millions of South Koreans, Japanese, or Americans in Hawaii or California. Deterrence works both ways, and Kim had no intention of suffering Gaddafi’s fate. Kim cannot solely rely on China, like Assad relied on Russia, either. Geopolitics is unpredictable. If tomorrow China and the United States reach a grand bargain and G2 in Asia, Kim will be toast.
Kim Just Got Trumped
What is important is not to look like surrendering everything and getting nothing in return. By that logic, Trump’s cancellation immediately after Kim’s threat of nuclear war seems appropriate. It is also important to ignore partisan and sophomoric analysis in news and media ascribing a win-lose scenario in what is essentially a complex multivariate situation.
Put simply, if one thinks this was good or terrible for the United States, reflect on his or her worldview rather than the situation. It is a good day to remember that the liberal President Moon of South Korea is possibly feeling suicidal now, just as the conservative prime minister of Japan is feeling elated. If one views national security from a narrow conservative and realist prism, Kim just got Trumped, “bigly.”
It defies logic that Kim would, under any circumstances, be willing to give up his nuclear weapons, the ultimate guarantor of his life and rule in his small personal fiefdom. Nor should true-blue conservatives and foreign policy realists expect that to happen, regardless of any guarantee from Kim’s side.
Trump or his administration, whichever way one looks at it, deserves credit for the détente. Trump’s version of Madman Theory, his strategic ambiguity, worked to bring Kim to the table. If that leads in the future to a permanent peace in the region and the slow withdrawal of American forces, then that’s worth the effort and praise.
But it would be better to be a realist than an optimist about the prospects of total denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula. And one should always be ready to walk away.