Analysis

By Cancelling North Korea Summit, Trump Snatched Humiliating Setback From the Jaws of Potential Catastrophe

In his quest for a Nobel Peace Prize, will the President now turn his attentions to the ultimate deal with the Palestinians?

A man walks past a television news screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump at a railway station in Seoul on May 16, 2018
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP

Two different narratives emerged in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, though they don’t necessarily contradict each other. The first is that the inflammatory rhetoric and the Libya precedent employed by Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton enraged Pyongyang, which was on the verge of nixing the summit itself. Trump, by his version, simply preempted Kim.

>> Read the full letter Donald Trump sent to Kim Jong Un canceling the summit >>

The second is that Trump belatedly realized that his meeting could only end in failure. After long months in which advisers and experts opined there was no chance in hell that Kim would agree to relinquish his nuclear arsenal, Trump was finally convinced. By cancelling the summit, he snatched a humiliating setback from the jaws of potential catastrophe.

Nonetheless, one should not underestimate the blow to Trump’s prestige. His apparent ability to transform harsh “Rocket Man” rhetoric into what appeared to be a distinct relaxation of North Korea’s belligerency seemed to spray his foreign policy with pixie dust. It not only raised hopes for a peaceful resolution to what remains the world’s most dangerous confrontation, it bestowed an air of magic on Trump’s entire, convention-defying, critic-confounding attitude to foreign affairs. If Trump can perform such miracles with Kim, who’s to say his decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal won’t actually bring down the extremist regime in Tehran? If he can work such wonders with one of the world’s most repressive and aggressive regimes, how can one dismiss his chances of achieving a breakthrough with the Palestinians?

Trump’s ostensible breakthrough with Kim tempered European reactions to his otherwise reckless betrayal of the North Atlantic alliance. It provided valuable ammunition for supporters in the Middle East, who could reasonably maintain that one couldn’t argue with Trump’s success. It relieved U.S. allies in the Far East, who were fearful at one time that the unorthodox and seemingly out-of-control U.S. President would precipitate nothing less than a nuclear holocaust. South Korea went so far as to preempt the summit itself by proposing in advance, a la Barack Obama, that Trump had already earned his coveted Nobel Peace Prize.

>> Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize, South Korea's president says >>

It would be fanciful to assume that the reversal of his fortunes will bring Trump back to planet Earth, because it’s not completely clear that he was ever there. The U.S. President’s superficiality, his unwillingness to exert himself and learn, his foolish reliance on his ability to wing it and his unfounded belief that he is a master of  the art of the deal are ingrained in his personality. Whether he now holds Pence, Bolton or Kim responsible for the summit debacle, one thing is certain: He won’t be blaming himself.

Much of the world, on the other hand, will have its worst suspicions confirmed. Trump, it turns out, is no magician, but rather a dangerous dilettante with a hand on the nuclear trigger. The administration itself is likely to see an internal battle royale between “moderates” such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, who will urge U.S. diplomats to continue seeking a breakthrough with Kim, and hawks such as Bolton, who would prefer to threaten North Korea into submission. Given Trump’s dissociation from Bolton’s referral to the Libya precedent and its accompanying explicit threat on Kim’s regime and life, perhaps Trump is asking himself whether deposing the calculated H R McMaster and replacing him with the fiery Bolton was such a good idea after all.

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Naturally, streams of Schadenfreude and rivers of “I told you so’s” were running freely on Thursday night in Washington DC and capitals around the world. Turns out Trump didn’t reinvent the wheel, facts matter, serious diplomacy is still vital and conducting a superpower’s foreign policy on the basis of one man’s inflated ego and tendency to fly by the seat of his pants doesn’t work that well after all. There is a silver lining in Trump’s cloud, however: Republicans will find it much easier to root for him if he returns to blasting Kim on Twitter than they were with the ludicrous flattery that marked Trump’s public statements towards Kim in recent weeks.

As for “the Israeli angle”, the cancellation of the summit with Kim is neither here nor there. Trump’s setback does not negate the irreversible steps and supposedly pro-Israeli steps that he’s already taken by revoking the nuclear deal, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and completely ignoring the Palestinians in general, and in Gaza in particular. Nonetheless, Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues may be secretly hoping that Kim continues to keep Trump engaged for the foreseeable future, otherwise he may start to look for his Nobel Prize somewhere else, as in the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.