On Thursday, President Trump abruptly cut short his planned diplomatic triumph with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un after Kim made clear he had no plans to denuclearize, and that he wanted all sanctions against his evil regime removed. Trump explained, “Sometimes you have to walk,” adding, “It was about the sanctions. Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that.”
Trump was right to walk. Of course Trump should have walked away from the table – he had no other choice, given that Kim wasn’t going to give up his nuclear program, and wanted the world in return. That isn’t hard-nosed negotiating on Trump’s part. That’s mere refusal to utterly abandon any sensible North Korean policy. Let’s not grade on a curve here.
The problem is that Trump’s diplomatic failure was the result of an ill-considered and morally benighted approach to the North Korean regime in the first place. Here’s how diplomacy usually works: there are preconditions for getting the most powerful man on the planet, the representative of the world’s most powerful and free state and the planet’s greatest defender of liberty, to sit down with you. Negotiators are deployed; concessions are pre-planned. But no such pre-planning took place. This meeting didn’t break down over an ancillary issue cropping up at the last minute. This meeting took place because there was no common ground from the get-go.
Indeed, Trump’s strategy seemed to be to declare a mere meeting a triumph, which it eminently is not – the President of the United States can meet with any world leader at the drop of a hat. It’s an honor for those leaders to meet with the president, not the other way around. The purpose of the meeting: the publicity to be garnered from the meeting.
What about the negotiations themselves? Trump had no obvious strategy – his strategy seemed to rely merely on interpersonal warmth and insane levels of sycophancy. President Trump himself is driven by flattery; it’s the currency by which he operates. He tends to think that others operate in the same currency. By expending ridiculous levels of such currency, Trump hoped to win Kim over to some form of serious concession. How far was Trump willing to go? He was willing to call his relationship with Kim a “special relationship” – a phrase usually used with regard to the US’s relationship with Great Britain. He suggested that Kim was a “great leader.” He spelled out his strategy just two days ago: “I’ve developed a very, very good relationship … he’s never had a relationship with anybody from this country, and hasn’t had lots of relationships anywhere.” Trump said at a rally in West Virginia in September, “He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
It seems never to have occurred to Trump that while he was trying to flatter Kim into giving up the only factor maintaining Kim’s power – his nuclear program – Kim was simultaneously trying to stroke Trump’s ego to get him to give him concessions. And it worked. To this point, Kim has offered no real concessions; Trump has now met with the world’s worst dictator twice, cancelled a joint US-South Korean naval exercise, and now explained that he takes Kim at his word that he didn’t know about the North Korean regime’s murder of American citizen Otto Warmbier – even though Trump himself hosted Warmbier’s family at the 2018 State of the Union Address, where he talked about the “ominous nature of this regime.”
It was a pathetic moment. And Trump’s strategy, which would only have been worth it if the United States had received something in return, has been exposed for the pathetic play-acting it always was. Foreign relations aren’t based in personal warmth. They’re based in the realities of power politics and national interest. Trump himself used to acknowledge that. But Trump’s obstinate belief in his own negotiating prowess and interpersonal skill has now put the United States in the position of quasi-endorsing and pandering before one of the worst human beings on the planet.