Misunderstanding Trump's 'failed' summit with Kim Jong-un

news

This article originally appeared on The National Interest.

The press has universally declared this week's summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam a "failure." From the headlines of the New York Times and Washington Post to the Blob, Trump has been indicted for diplomatic malpractice. As Richard Haass summarized the matter: "The Hanoi summit showed the dangers of a president who over-personalizes diplomacy."

If this were just another card in the political war between Trump and the anti-Trumpers, I would not be moved to comment. But since the issue of North Korea's nuclear program is one that could lead to a nuclear bomb exploding in an American city, the U.S. government's efforts to prevent that really matters. So, here are my four takeaways.


Takeaway 1:

In their approach to North Korea, Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have departed dramatically from established Washington diplomatic practice. The reason why is best explained by a Chinese proverb: "If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." Over the past two decades, as the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush followed the advice of the foreign policy establishment, what happened? A small, isolated hermit kingdom proceeded to test a nuclear device, develop missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons against American troops and allies in South Korea and Japan, produce an arsenal of as many as sixty nuclear warheads, and reach the threshold of an ability to deliver nuclear-armed ICBMs against the American homeland.

Trump and Pompeo rightly judged that to be an American failure.

Takeaway 2:

In contrast, the Trump administration took a page from Ronald Reagan's playbook in his dealings with Mikhail Gorbachev—a playbook that eliminated all Soviet intermediate nuclear forces and ultimately precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Reagan's case, the primary target was not the items about which the United States and the Soviet Union were negotiating—numbers of warheads, missiles, etc.—but the mind of an autocrat whom he thought he could persuade to try to transform his entire country.

Takeaway 3:

To understand Trump and Kim in Hanoi, remember Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik. In 1986, what Reagan described as a "beautiful" letter from Gorbachev led an American president to announce a two-day summit on short notice in an out-of-the-way place in Iceland. (For the full text of this letter and other declassified documents, see "The Reykjavik File." ) The two leaders met for an hour one-on-one before pulling in their advisors for successive rounds of negotiations. But when it became clear that there were key differences in their positions, Reagan "walked away" without an agreement.

The press berated him and the summit was declared by the press to be a failure. But as Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz said at the time, "Reykjavik came unexpectedly close to an unexpectedly ambitious agreement." The meeting was not a failure, but a critical opportunity for both sides to understand each other's bottom lines.

Sure enough, what the Blob deemed a failure paved the way for what happened a year later when Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty (which the Trump administration has recently withdrawn from) that zeroed out all the Soviet Union's intermediate nuclear-armed missiles. In explaining his willingness to do that, Gorbachev credited the Reykjavik summit "for having given an impetus to reduction by reaffirming the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and paving the way toward concrete agreements."

Takeaway 4:

Consider Trump's selection of Hanoi and Singapore last spring as the sites for his summits with Kim Jong-un. If the objective were to excite the imagination of the leader of one of the most impoverished, isolated nations on earth, it is difficult to imagine a more captivating venue.

Only fifty-five years ago, the United States was at war with Vietnam and Singapore was a notoriously corrupt, poor port that could have reminded one of North Korea today. Even with authoritarian leadership, they embraced the magic of market economics and integrated into the global economy, becoming economic powerhouses.

This message was surely not lost on Kim.

Putting the summit into a broader context, I am reminded of a Chinese maxim that says "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Although the road to denuclearization is long, my bet is that history will remember the Hanoi Summit as a significant step along that road.

Graham T. Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard's Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

More from The National Interest:

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sit down before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis
(U.S. Army/Sgt. Amber Smith)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Congress fell short ahead of Memorial Day weekend, failing to pass legislation that would provide tax relief for the families of military personnel killed during their service.

Senators unanimously approved a version of the bipartisan Gold Star Family Tax Relief Act Tuesday sending it back to the House of Representatives, where it was tied to a retirement savings bill as an amendment, and passed Thursday.

When it got back to the Senate, the larger piece of legislation failed to pass and make its way to the President Trump's desk.

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Air Force)

Two airmen were administratively punished for drinking at the missile launch control center for 150 nuclear LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, the Air Force confirmed to Task & Purpose on Friday.

Read More Show Less

Two F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters recently flew a mission in the Middle East in "beast mode," meaning they were loaded up with as much firepower as they could carry.

The F-35s with the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron took off from Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates to execute a mission in support of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Air Forces Central Command revealed. The fifth-generation fighters sacrificed their high-end stealth to fly with a full loadout of weaponry on their wings.

Read More Show Less
(DoD photos)

The U.S. Senate closed out the week before Memorial Day by confirming Gen. James McConville as the Army's new chief of staff and Adm. Bill Moran as the Navy's new chief of naval operations.

McConville, previously vice chief of staff of the Army, was confirmed on Thursday along with his successor, Lt Gen. Joseph Marin. Moran, currently vice chief of naval operations, was confirmed Friday along with his successor, Vice Adm. Robert Burke.

Read More Show Less

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is prohibiting service members who work there from being in the area of a Ku Klux Klan rally scheduled for Saturday in downtown Dayton, Ohio.

Read More Show Less