Is it so bad that Donald Trump gave away so much only for Kim Jong-un to give so little in return? Does it really matter that Trump became the first sitting president to give the North Korean leader a meeting, thereby granting him an honour that’s usually reserved for the end of successful negotiations? Isn’t it better that the leaders are meeting, shaking hands, and smiling, rather than issuing threats through the media ahead of some inevitable military conflict?
It’s a symptom of the Trump presidency that such easy questions get us so twisted and turned around. The Singapore summit certainly came at a cost but only hardened traditionalists would argue that the price was too high. Besides, it was always a cost that a president as disruptive as Trump could afford to pay. The matter of honouring Kim was really inconsequential to the larger ambitions of this administration and a president who has spoken so openly about him winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet more than any other argument: words are better than wars, and it’s to those ends that Trump’s efforts should be applauded.
Yet that’s the problem with Trump. It’s too easy to allow his excesses to colour his actions and lead us to extrapolate that everything he does must be inherently bad. One senses that if his latest initiative led to the complete denuclearization of North Korea, his critics would still find a reason to dismiss it as pure luck or the result of the South Korean president’s hard work. Trump would just be the man who was lucky to be president when the North Korean leader decided to sue for peace rather maintain his path towards war.
If there is, however, an underlying reality that might be worth noting at this optimistic moment, it is about the capricious nature of Trump’s decision-making over the past few months. This is the president who excitedly ran to the White House Press Room and popped his head through the door in order to drop a bit hint about Kim meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. He is the president who rushed through the arrangements of his own meeting and then, just as quickly, withdrew from talks in one of the most unusual letters sent by an American president to a foreign leader. Then, just as quickly, the meetings were back on and Trump was explaining how he would know what to do simply using “just my touch, my feel. That’s what I do.” He now talks about making quick deals and how the process of denuclearisation has already begun. He praises Kim for destroying the Punggye-ri nuclear site despite intelligence reports that show that Kim sacrificed a site that had already become unstable because of tests. Trump now floats the possibility of inviting Kim to the White House and of his visiting Pyongyang. The excitement is palpable, like that of a child who has just made a new best friend.
Needless to say, such an outcome seems highly unlikely. With each piece of hyperbole, Trump piles his reputation on there being astonishing outcomes based on the fundamentally weak agreement that the two leaders signed in Singapore. What then will be the consequences if Kim begins to prevaricate? What happens if North Korean starts to play the old game of non-compliance? What happens when Donald Trump realises that he doesn’t like the new friend he’s invited to a sleepover in the White House? What happens if he begins to look like a fool for trusting Kim?
Today, in a good mood when he feels that history is on his side, he laughed off the possibility. “I may be wrong,” he said. “I might stand before you in six months and say ‘Hey! I was wrong…’ I don’t know I’ll ever admit that but I’ll find some kind of an excuse”. He might not admit it but we can be sure he will find a response. After all, we already know how Trump responds when slighted by another world leader. Today he expressed his disgust at the notion that Justin Trudeau might have badmouthed him behind his back. “That’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada,” he warned about America’s nearest ally and one of its largest trading partners. How might that fragile ego respond if Kim Jong-un reneges on his promises?
American presidents have always trod carefully around the issue of North Korea, wisely leaving their options open. Trump has done none of that. Today, he talks peace and hyperbole about North Korea’s great future as a beachside hotel resort. Trump is a man living in his own reality and making decisions based not on the facts as they are but the facts as he imagines them. If the alternative was nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula, then the limp, unconvincing, and largely gestural agreement signed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un might be considered a success. What it isn’t, however, is the solution to the problem and therein lies the real problem. Trump is taking credit for the success of negotiations that have still not taken place. It’s a case of a man so desperate to win that he has claimed victory before he has properly played the game.