U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un were at the summit in Singapore because of what their predecessors had done. Trump is the unlikely beneficiary of over seven decades of American commitment to security in the Far East. A commitment, he made clear in his rambling press conference after Tuesday morning’s summit, that he is eager to get out of. Chairman Kim, as he is now to be addressed, is finally beginning to reap the rewards of his father and grandfather, who starved millions to death to build their kingdom’s fortress and its nuclear arsenal.
Trump, the great dealmaker, got nothing more at the summit than a reaffirmation of previous North Korean promises made to the United States in 1994 and 2005. Promises that Pyongyang promptly went ahead and broke.
Has he got a better guarantee that this time the promises will be kept and the process of denuclearization will go ahead “very, very quickly,” as Trump predicted? His answer was “You can’t ensure anything.” Well no, you can’t, which is why we will have to wait and see if a more comprehensive agreement is reached, and if the North Koreans actually implement it. But not to worry, Trump is convinced. “All I can say is they want to make a deal,” he said. “I just feel [it] very strongly,” calling it “my instinct, my ability or talent.”
Kim in return has been allowed to emerge from the shadows. He has been accepted by the world as a legitimate partner for negotiations, and has been granted a major concession by Trump with the cancellation of the biannual joint military exercises that the United States holds with South Korea.
This is a clear indication that Trump intends to reduce America’s commitment to regional security. Add to that his repeated wishes to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea and his statement regarding the costs of denuclearization: “The United States has been paying a big price at a lot of different places,” he said. “South Korea, which obviously is right next door, and Japan, which essentially is next door, they’re going to be helping them.” All of this was great for Kim, and his Chinese patrons. The United States has left the building.
Who knows, Trump may be right. He may have established a rapport with the “Dauphin dictator.” Perhaps Kim, despite his cruel proclivities and absolutist upbringing, truly wants to open North Korea to the world. Maybe we’ve been wrong all along, and what he really wants is to hang out with Dennis Rodman and host NBA teams in Pyongyang. This young, fun-loving man who studied in Switzerland may actually want to do what his father and grandfather would have never contemplated and use the strategic assets they built to buy his nation’s way out of isolation.
Right now, though, it sounds very much like then-President George W. Bush after his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001, when Bush said: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy ... I was able to get a sense of his soul.” We all know how that ended.
So until we know how this ends, the real question is what those looking from afar will make of this. For the leaders of nations aspiring to replace American hegemony – Russia’s Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping – the summit was excellent news. Trump’s United States is on a clear course toward isolationism. For America’s allies, both in the Far East and Europe, it is an extremely ominous sign, to be added to a very worrisome trend.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who only two days earlier was seen – in the now-iconic photograph from the G-7 summit in Canada – looking sternly and censoriously at a petulant Trump, must now face unsought responsibilities.
To understand where Trump is now, all you have to do is contrast that photograph of him estranged from America’s old allies to the beaming images of him at the summit beside genocidal tyrant Kim. Merkel never sought the title that some are seeking to award her – “the new leader of the Free World.” It means that Germany, along with other NATO allies, must bear the brunt of funding and regrouping the alliance, at a time when two of its key members – the United States and Turkey – can no longer be relied upon.
Not all of America’s allies are despairing, though. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the Sunni Arab nations who have curried favor with Trump will be energized that the U.S. president is intent on tearing up the old diplomatic rule book and doing the opposite of what Barack Obama did.
With the summit done and dusted, they believe the hawks in Trump’s administration – who will not have been too happy with their boss palling it up with Kim – will now be given free rein to pursue regime change, perhaps even war, with Iran. At the press conference, Trump repeated that Kim’s is a “substantial [nuclear] arsenal,” and that it was the fault of his predecessors that he was ever allowed to accumulate it. This will reinforce their arguments for going after the Iranian regime even harder, before it builds its own arsenal.
The Iranian leadership will be more isolated and confounded than ever. Their old ally Kim, perhaps soon to be ex-ally, went all the way and achieved nuclear capability, and has now been rewarded by a presidential embrace. They signed a deal with Obama, put their nuclear plans on hold and are instead being pressed on all sides.
The Foreign Ministry in Tehran tried to warn Kim that he is “facing a man who revokes his signature while abroad,” but he didn’t seem to heed them. Trump promised Tuesday that the “brutal” sanctions on Iran would soon kick in. “I don’t think they’re so confident right now,” he said of the Iranian leadership. For once, he was telling the truth.
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