Most of the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea in the run-up to Tuesday’s summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were about the meeting itself.
At one point last week it appeared that the theatrics from both sides had subsided. But then Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer who has no experience, expertise or business being involved in foreign policy, jeopardized the summit by saying that after Trump initially canceled it, Kim “got back on his hands and knees and begged for it, which is exactly the position you want to put him in.”
The purpose of diplomacy is to peacefully resolve conflicts. A negotiated settlement isn’t advanced by boasting of humiliating the other side.
It’s also not helped by maximalist positions. Trump administration hard-liners including National Security Adviser John Bolton — as well as seven Democratic senators who wrote a letter to Trump that threatened to maintain or enhance sanctions unless the deal meets their exacting standards — shouldn’t scuttle summit progress before it even starts by allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Or even the inconclusive, which seems to be a likely outcome of such a meeting. Indeed, even an uncertain outcome with a promise to continue the conversation beats the previous path to war that Trump’s intemperate rhetoric suggested.
Trump should certainly push for the ideal of denuclearization. But he should not agree to a deal that further elevates Kim beyond being the first North Korean leader to meet with a sitting U.S. president. Although it’s desirable to finally have a peace treaty replace the armistice that ended the Korean War, that reward should not supersede the subject at hand, which is the unacceptable threat that Pyongyang’s proliferation poses to U.S. allies and even America itself.
Trump seemed to signal he’s genuinely open to negotiations to mitigate that threat when he recently said that he no longer wanted to use the term “maximum pressure” in describing the administration’s approach.
Those may be welcome words to Kim, but they send a mixed signal to other world leaders who showed unusual unanimity in imposing sanctions on North Korea — sanctions that may have brought Kim to the table in the first place. While inconsistent, Trump’s less bellicose approach suggests a newfound flexibility that just may result in a breakthrough.
“I’ve been somewhat encouraged by the somewhat lower expectations that seem to be being placed on the summit,” Mark Bell, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer. “Now it seems that there is more understanding that this will be a process and that more limited agreements might nonetheless be successful. If the United States is prepared to accept that deals short of denuclearization are a good thing, then there are plenty of good deals to be made.”
The world would benefit from an ideal deal. But a good one — one that avoids war — would be welcome, too.