Menachem Begin famously said, “The hardships of peace are preferable to the sufferings of war.” In this regard, the Singapore summit on Tuesday between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was welcome news for humanity. Two leaders who had threatened each other with nuclear holocaust only a few months ago met cordially, promised to improve relations between their two countries and committed themselves to peace. In a world in which image is often more significant than content, the Trump-Kim summit was an impressive achievement that might be seen one day as truly historic.
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But the understandable wish to see conflicts solved through negotiations and the recognition that the importance of summits often lies in the very fact that they occurred - never mind the media’s natural inclination to unrealistically inflate the import of events - cannot hide the fact that the big winner in Singapore wasn’t the leader of the world’s strongest democracy but a murderous dictator from one of the most oppressive countries on earth. Kim was given legitimacy, respect, accolades and hugs from the president of the United States without giving up anything tangible in return. Moreover, he is now in possession of a written commitment from the United States to maintain his terrible tyranny as well as a later announcement by Trump that his country would suspend its joint military exercises with South Korea, which Trump described, just like Pyongyang, as “provocative.”
The extravagant theatrics of the summit stood in stark contrast to its substantive achievements. Despite Trump’s efforts to play up the written statement he signed with Kim, it is so general and vague that the president may have been better off without it. North Korea has repeatedly taken on Kim’s commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” since 1992. Moreover, the Agreed Framework of 1994, the Six Nation Joint Statement of 2005 and the Six Nation Declaration of 2007 all contained stronger language and more binding pledges than those included in the Trump-Kim communiqué. Only a president who believes the world was recreated at his inauguration could seriously contend that the Singapore statement was a serious rather than a symbolic document.
The statement was actually notable more for what it lacked than what it actually contained. Contrary to previous North Korean undertakings, there was no mention of Pyongyang rejoining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. No mention of any supervision or verification that it would carry out its commitments. Not a word about the North Korean missile program, which reached intercontinental capacity last year and spurred the Trump administration to seek an accommodation. Japan and South Korea, the North’s threatened neighbors, aren’t even mentioned in the joint statement. And there was no reference to the atrocious human rights record of Kim’s regime or any indication that it was about to change its ways. On the contrary, Trump gave Kim carte blanche to continue oppressing his people as he sees fit.
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Trump may have believed that the summit would silence his critics, prove his singular talent for The Art of the Deal and show his superiority over his predecessors but these aspirations were “science fiction”, as Kim described their meeting, rather than rational assessment. Trump tried to promote his achievements in a rambling press conference but his vague narrative was reminiscent of the “boring prophet” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who predicts “There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are and no one will really know where lieth those little things.”
When he returns to the United States tomorrow and sees the headlines, Trump is bound to be disappointed. The results of his talks with Kim and the gap between them and the great expectations that Trump sparked before the summit won’t alleviate the criticism leveled against the president in the wake of his unruly behavior at the G-7 summit but only make it worse. The distance between his overzealous flirtation with the despot from Pyongyang and his disdainful dismissal of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, leader of one of America’s greatest allies, now makes his behavior in Quebec seem even more abhorrent.
Of course there is always the hope that future talks between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean officials will yield more practical results. If one is to believe Trump, Kim will soon take steps that will prove his sincerity. Nonetheless, Trump’s empty boasts cast his contempt for the Iran nuclear deal, with its stringent stipulations and harsh verifications, in a ridiculous light. And yes, to use the comparison that has become a cliché, if Barack Obama had returned from a summit with North Korea with such a sketchy and ambiguous document, he would have been accused of kowtowing to dictators, if not outright treason.
Trump has proven once again that bombastic declarations and a show of toughness are no substitute for proper preparation and getting down to details, which are the foundations of any serious work in international relations. He skipped meticulous planning, dodged serious thought and went straight for a high-profile summit. Like far too many Israelis, Trump believes that he is the be-all and end-all; that he, and only he, can square the circle and do what his predecessors couldn’t. He will find out in the next few days that reality bites and that pretentious self-praise simply isn’t enough. Which means that now is the time to start worrying how Trump will react to the letdown and who will bear the brunt of his anger, once he finds out that he is once again being portrayed as an amateur and a charlatan.