On Monday night, U.S. President Donald Trump will meet Kim Jong Un, the leader of America’s worst enemy, fresh on the heels of poisoning ties with its closest ally, Canada. Trump comes to Singapore as the leader of the free world, shortly after losing the confidence of its leaders at the G-7 summit. He is facing a complex and risky task that requires skills in diplomacy, which he derides, thorough knowledge, which he disdains, self-control, which he lacks, and the ability to inspire personal confidence at a time he is making headlines by reneging on a joint statement that he agreed to only a few hours earlier.
It’s hard to exaggerate the shock waves that Trump left in his wake at the G-7 summit that convened over the weekend in Quebec. Trump was like a bull in a china shop, smashing diplomatic norms of behavior, and like a schoolyard bully who delights in tormenting his weaker friends. Like any bully, Trump showed his thin skin: A suspicion that Canada’s Justin Trudeau had insulted him was enough for Trump to bring the U.S.-Canada dialogue to its lowest point since 1972, when Richard Nixon, incensed by the independent foreign policy pursued by Trudeau’s father Pierre, pronounced the “special relationship” between the two countries dead.
Trump proved that he will always meet the lowest of expectations, and if he surprises, it’s usually for the worse. Nonetheless, the world has no choice but to pin its hopes on the capricious and temperamental U.S. president. The risks to world peace posed by nuclear North Korea are far too grave, even for those yearning to see Trump defeated and humiliated. A successful conclusion to the Singapore summit would calm tensions in the Korean peninsula and spark hopes for a comprehensive agreement in the future. Failure, on the other hand, could lead to escalation, which, at its worst, portends the worst nightmare of the modern era: A military confrontation between two countries that are capable and willing to deploy the weapons of mass destruction at their disposal.
Hopes for success hinge on the existence of an upside-down bizarro world, where everything is contrary. Perhaps there is a silver lining hidden in the cloud of Trump’s penchant to berate allies and suck up to strongmen like Kim and Vladimir Putin, and Singapore will see the start of a beautiful friendship. Possibly North Korea will be the exception that proves the rule, an arena that calls for grandiose, Trump-style quick-fixes rather than deliberate and methodical negotiations. Maybe there is a chance that while Trump is a train-wreck in conventional foreign relations, on North Korea he will transform into a master of diplomatic alchemy, a magician in solving seemingly intractable conflicts, an Alexander the Great who wields his sword to cut the Gordian knot that stumped his predecessors.
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No one, with the possible exception of Trump himself, believes that the summit in Singapore can yield a deal to denuclearize Pyongyang’s weapons arsenal. Kim won’t easily relinquish, if at all, the central achievement of his regime, the one that has made him into an essential international player and the object of Trump’s attention. A friendly meeting that ends in smiles and a joint statement will be an achievement. A formal declaration of the end of the brutal war that Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung started 68 years ago this month when he launched the invasion of South Korea would be greeted as a powerful message of hope for the future. Detailed agreement on a framework and timetable for talks on denuclearization would be considered a breakthrough that will be greeted with sighs of relief and even cries of joy throughout the world.
The question is whether Trump himself will make do with such accomplishments. He yearns to confound his critics, prove himself a super-statesman and immediately turn into a leading contender for the Nobel Peace Prize; his detractors fear that he will sell the store and its contents in exchange for the mere appearance of an unprecedented achievement. Trump is addicted to instant gratification and is looking for the one big deal that will yield sensational headlines; he is loath to make do with interim arrangements that will require time, energy and sustained effort. He will certainly shy away from anything that can be compared to the Iran nuclear deal, which he describes as “monstrous” and “lunatic”, and will strive for a deal that will prove his superiority over his predecessor, Barack Obama. In his infinite arrogance, Trump said over the weekend that he would be able to assess Kim’s intentions “within a minute:” Such hasty decisions could pave the way to monumental failure or to dangerous and ultimately futile concessions.
Trump’s preparations for the summit have only deepened the apprehensions of already-skeptical experts. In recent weeks he has shied away from consulting with knowledgeable and experienced experts and has even distanced his hawkish National Security Adviser, John Bolton. Trump’s right-hand man on North Korea is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met with Kim twice, first as CIA Director and then in his present position. Pompeo enjoys some respect in Washington, certainly more than Trump himself, but is also viewed as prone to bowing his head to the impulses and whims of the man who appointed him.
Israel is also wary of the summit in Singapore. The government - and most of the Israeli public, as the newly published poll by the American Jewish Committee shows - view Trump as an indispensable ally. On the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that success in North Korea could strengthen Trump’s hand in dealing with Iran. Such success, however, could make Trump more ambitious for a similar diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran. Netanyahu opposes any negotiated arrangement with Iran by definition: He prefers a U.S. president who deals with nuclear-hungry totalitarian regimes with force of arms rather than sweet-talking diplomacy.
Trump’s predecessors were hoodwinked twice by Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. Bill Clinton in 1994 and George W. Bush in 2007 signed on to deals meant to neutralize Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal after being wrongly convinced that pressure and sanctions had changed the mindset and course of the North Korean regime. Now we’re dealing with a U.S. president with less knowledge, experience, judgment or patience than his predecessors, who is convinced of his singular ability to square the circle and who has managed to undermine the support of America’s allies, which might prove crucial in enforcing any deal reached with Kim. The international community sincerely wants to see him succeed, but true confidence in his prospects is reserved, for now, to blind supporters and those who believe in miracles.