Figuring out why President Trump failed in diplomacy with China and North Korea is important if only to extract lessons for subsequent presidents who will be more teachable and less emotionally needy than the current president. The first step is acknowledging that Trump and his negotiators have screwed up — badly.
North Korea summitry did not go awry because national security adviser John Bolton said impolitic things betraying his contempt for diplomacy. (He did and he does, but he wasn’t the cause of the breakup.) It wasn’t because Trump showed “daring” in shredding the Iran deal, thereby frightening away Kim Jong Un — or alternatively, because nixing the Iran deal told Kim we weren’t serious. (Iran deal critics and opponents should get over themselves; North Korea isn’t about them.)
The North Korea summit went by the wayside because North Korea was never serious. How do we know? The administration is fessing up obliquely on background. The negotiations did not go smoothly before ending abruptly; rather they didn’t get started in any meaningful way.
The Atlantic’s Uri Freidman reports on the background briefing:
North Korea, the official noted, had left “a trail of broken promises” since March 8, when Trump announced his intention to meet with Kim. That announcement came after a South Korean delegation to Washington informed the president that the North Korean leader was committed to denuclearization and willing to halt his nuclear and missile tests while U.S.-South Korea military exercises proceeded. First North Korea backtracked on the military exercises by furiously objecting last week to a routine joint air-force drill, the official noted. Then, after agreeing during U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest visit to Pyongyang to send representatives to Singapore to work out logistics for the summit, the North Koreans stood up their U.S. counterparts without explanation. The American advance team “waited and they waited. The North Koreans never showed up,” the official said. . . .
The official also cast doubt on North Korea’s much-hyped destruction of its mountainous nuclear-test site on Thursday, claiming that the North had reneged on a pledge to [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and the South Korean government to permit international nuclear experts to witness and verify the demolition. North Korea allowed in only journalists instead. As a result, the official explained, “We will not have forensic evidence that much was accomplished. It’s possible that the tunnels were detonated in a way that will still allow them to be used in the future.”
In short, Kim is not “honorable,” as Trump foolishly said (making himself seem like an easy mark). There is no evidence Kim wants to give up his nuclear weapons. And frankly, I’m not all that sure South Korea relayed North Korea’s intentions accurately. It raises questions of whether our intelligence community agreed with the assessment that Kim has changed his stripes: If their intelligence detected no reason for optimism, why didn’t the White House pay attention? If our intelligence community was caught blind, we should know that, too.
This comedy of errors makes one seriously doubt (if you didn’t before) the foreign policy judgment of Trump and his senior advisers. Convincing themselves that their own pressure campaign was so brilliant as to undo 50 years of North Korean dogma and international strategy was a fateful error. Trump demonstrated he’s not a dealmaker but a sucker. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the possibility that complete denuclearization of North Korea is not possible short of a replay of the Korean War, which neither the United States nor our allies are prepared to undertake.
As for China, Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations aptly diagnoses the source of the problem: The administration does not understand what it needs or how to get it. He writes:
Unlike the other trade fights, U.S. business has been encouraging President Trump, hoping that the new approach might persuade Beijing to tackle the growing problems they face in China over intellectual property, forced technology transfer, and investment restrictions. But the deal reached over the weekend addresses none of those issues; China’s only tangible commitment was to offer “meaningful increases in U.S. agriculture and energy exports.” So, more soybeans and gas. This is hardly the stuff of the high-tech economy.
For starters, Trump treated China like Japan in the 1980s — from whence most of his and his aging advisers’ views emanate. “Japan was a close U.S. ally, and was willing to tolerate considerable economic pressure from the U.S. in the name of maintaining security ties. It is hard to see China—or even the EU—being similarly accommodating today,” Alden argues. “Trump’s preference for bilateral deals is premised on a shallow reading of history. The U.S.-Japan trade balance deteriorated throughout this period, despite repeated ‘market-opening’ deals, and many large sectors—from autos to telecommunications—remained largely closed to imports.” As a result, Trump dismissed out of hand the only viable path — multilateral negotiations backed up by the potential for World Trade Organization sanctions (which Trump oddly has never tried against China). Moreover, trade protectionism is an idle threat that hurts the U.S. economy as much as it hurts economies that export to the United States.
Trump’s obsession with the trade deficit and his animosity toward multilateral deals and the WTO are misplaced. Instead, he bellowed, bluffed and lost.
The lessons on China trade are threefold: Focus on the right problem (intellectual property), use allies and multilateral organizations (rather than shun both), and don’t make stupid comments such as “trade war wars are good, and easy to win.” (It also shouldn’t need repeating that no serious president should say the leader of an authoritarian country is his “friend” and that a red-carpet welcome makes a deal more likely.) Trump would also be smart to fire his pro-protectionist advisers Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who demonstrated that they had the wrong goal and the wrong strategy. Better to get people who have actually made a trade deal or two. Moreover, it is time to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is the ideal way to pressure China, reassure allies and create new markets for American exports.