Last Friday, newspaper headlines reported that Trump canceled his upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un. I wanted to ask you about that and got as far as the first paragraph before subsequent online reports suggested that the meeting is on after all, maybe. I nonetheless include my initial opening, antiquated though it may be, because it accurately assesses the personal forces at work, including its correct prediction that, with or without a meeting, Trump and Kim will continue talking at each other. There is too much attention that each can mine by babbling at the other.
“Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are the most entertaining will-they-or-won’t-they since Sam and Diane on ‘Cheers.’ They may still get together at some point, for reasons similar to Sam and Diane’s: they are both wacky characters (an overcompensating malignant narcissist with homicidal tendencies! Another overcompensating malignant narcissist with homicidal tendencies! Oh, those rascals!) and where else but with each other might they find a soul mate? (Outside of a maximum security prison, that is.) Given the bipolar spectrum of their conversations so far, it is anyone’s guess whether future dialogue will involve death threats, conciliatory noises, kissy faces or more of all the above. But it is inconceivable that two such pathologically attention-starved individuals will henceforth foreswear the global headlines they generate whenever they talk at each other. Regardless whether they ever meet, Trump’s cancellation is not the end.”
Beyond the self-centered orbits of Kim and Trump’s respective personality disorders, the larger question is what effect their attention-grabbing will have for the world. For everyone else, their shenanigans seem to offer little upside. Kim knows as well as John Bolton that when pariah regimes scrap their nuclear programs, their leaders become vulnerable to foreign intervention, overthrow and execution. That fate befell Saddam Hussein and Mu’ammer Gaddafi after they tried to play by global rules – all while Kim’s similar pariah father kept his weapons, stayed a pariah, and survived. As long as North Korea remains a global pariah, the chance of Kim giving up his nuclear weapons is zero. As long as Trump wants to talk denuclearization, he and Kim can always generate headlines by talking, but they have nothing to talk about. Talks will end either without agreement or with a treaty that Kim breaks (as Kim’s father did in the 1990s).
The only potentially successful North Korea strategy is the one America pursued with China in the 1970s. China under Mao was as authoritarian and nuclear-armed as North Korea today. America drew China out (as leverage against the Soviet Union) and acted (in public) on the optimistic assumption that Mao would reward moderation with moderation, even without promising concessions beforehand. Over the next few decades, China started trading, grew rich, and, to some extent, even improved its domestic government. Today, China has even more nuclear weapons than it did in the 1970s. But despite that; despite the difficulties that a globalized China now presents; despite evidence that China backslides into (more) authoritarianism, Xi Jingping is much less likely than Mao Zedong to invade, much less nuke, his neighbors – in part because most of them are now important trade partners. The only way that success *might* be achieved with North Korea is a long-term plan that takes its nuclear weapons as given and reduces its incentives to use them.
In the short-term, that means the American president must do what Nixon did with Mao. He must offer something for nothing, to an autocrat with a history of wild statements and murderous behavior. Despite the long-term upside, Obama did not want the headache of being called soft while he sat in office. Trump prides himself on his daughter being a “hot piece of ass” and babbles into the digital aether at lunatic hours because he cannot delay gratification until the coming day’s news cycle. The chance that Trump will want to be “soft” with Kim, for dividends paid decades from now, is comparable to the chance that Kim will bet his life on Trump and all American presidents henceforth never attacking his country.
The more short-term attention Trump grabs by being mercurial, the more he undercuts his own and America’s long-term positions. Trump cannot even keep an appointment (assuming he keeps it) without, at a bare minimum, canceling and then canceling his cancellation. Trump also makes an apparent conscious project of building his legacy by erasing his predecessor’s. On everything from financial regulation to the Affordable Care Act to the Trans Pacific Partnership to the Paris Climate Accord to a treaty with Iran to ignoring North Korea, Trump judges (probably correctly) that the surest way for him to get attention is by reversing Obama on policy, particularly when he trolls Obama on Twitter at the same time. People who can’t climb up tear others down.
Most leaders, particularly those of democratic and developed nations, try to work within existing treaty parameters even when they do not like them, because long-term credibility gives them more leverage to implement the other policies they want. The world’s takeaway from Trump is that this particular American president cannot be trusted to even schedule an appointment. Moreover, nothing prevents the next president from reversing Trump the way that Trump reverses Obama. No American president can be trusted beyond a four or, at most, eight year horizon. Developed nations typically place a higher premium on stability. The social capital implied by stability (responsive government, trust in institutions and law, relative transparency and lack of corruption, etc.) is a major reason why those nations developed fully instead of falling into the middle income trap. But that feedback loop runs both ways. Measured by financial insecurity, inequality, social immobility, education, inadequate healthcare, and life expectancy, millions in America live developing nation lifestyles. As their social capital deteriorated, they chose a leader whose infantile braggadocio, blatant dishonesty, pathological instability and other transparent mental health issues were indeed typical of medal-festooned banana republic strongmen. When mind cannot satisfy body, body retards mind – which makes a positive outcome even more difficult.