In the movie Ghostbusters, there’s a moment around the iconic firehouse when Egon (Harold Ramis) and Venkman (Bill Murray) are driving a hard bargain with a real estate agent. “I think this building should be condemned,” says Egon. “There’s serious metal fatigue in all the load-bearing members, the wiring is substandard, it’s completely inadequate for our power needs, and the neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone.”
It’s a great play. It looks for a moment like the agent might capitulate and lower the price. Except then Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) shouts from the upper floor: “Hey! Does this pole still work?”. He proceeds to slide down and declare “Wow! This place is great! When can we move in? You’ve got to try this pole! I’m gonna get my stuff.”
One can imagine that American negotiators dealing with North Korea felt much the same in recent months. After years spent establishing a high price for North Korean denuclearization, they looked on as Donald Trump slid down the metaphorical pole right into the heart of the negotiations, and declared “Wow! This place is great! When can we move in?” Suddenly, it was the President himself who was going to lead the negotiations. In that one brief moment, North Korea achieved a goal which would normally have marked its return from the cold: recognition by an American president and a chance to broker peace at the highest of tables.
It is certainly arguable whether or not diplomacy should be done this way. His critics condemn Trump for breaking every rule, giving up a prize that had been withheld by successive administrations. Yet, in truth, this strategy might just work. If logic, strategy, and the best brains in geopolitics couldn’t solve North Korea, then perhaps a bit of blind luck might do the trick.
As for Trump: North Korea offers an opportunity like few others. He might claim that his first year saw his administration succeed like none before him, but the reality is damning. His single “great” accomplishment, the much-vaunted tax bill, was not (as he often claims) the biggest in history, and appears to have had little positive effect on the US economy. It now emerges, according to the Congressional Budget Office, that the tax deal, along with increased defence spending, will raise the U.S. deficit to $1 trillion 2020, taking national debt up from $21 trillion to $33 trillion. Those are damning numbers for the party of fiscally responsible conservatives. Trump also faces the looming prospect of Republicans losing control of both the House and Senate in the midterms, after which his presidency will become, like many before it, dead on its feet.
Add to that his problems with Stormy, Playboy bunnies, James Comey, Michael Cohen, Sean Hannity, Russia, Rod Rosenstein, and Robert Mueller, and you begin to see the context giving shape to the looming negotiations with North Korea. Trump needs to come away with a deal, and that need is a very big problem for this President.
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Sarah Huckabee Sanders has described Trump as “the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation”. It’s a claim that is repeatedly echoed by those around the President (usually within his earshot). He is “one of the best negotiators” according to Senator Lindsey Graham – while according to Michael Cohen Trump is “not only the most recognised individual on the planet but an individual who is regarded as the greatest deal-maker of this century.”
All of which is absolute nonsense. Whether by design or accident, a New York property developer, with a knack for self-promotion and with a series of failed business ventures behind him, has stumbled into a scenario by which he has chance to broker the deal of the century. It’s like some slightly crazy American B movie in which a small-town car salesman finds himself negotiating peace with an alien race intent on destroying the world.
Even a casual observer (especially one in Pyongyang) can see that Trump is quite possibly the worst negotiator ever to sit in the Oval Office. He is capricious to a degree that even his closest aides rarely know what he’s about to do. He launches trade wars on the spur of the moment, leaving officials to scramble around and work out the details. His ambassador to the UN announces sanctions on Russia which he then countermands. This is the leader who boasted that he would sign any compromise on immigration that crossed his desk and that he would take all the heat, only to then renege on his words the moment he realised that his base was having a collective conniption fit. He is the man who promised that Mexico would pay for The Wall, which is now being funded by American taxpayers, quite possibly out of the defence budget. He is also the man who became famous shouting “You’re fired” yet appears incapable of firing anybody in person, preferring to use Twitter.
Forget, for the moment, the American perspective. Put yourself in Kim Jong Un’s shoes. Why wouldn’t you want to sit down, face to face, with a man who is not only unable to strike a tough bargain, but who is also too desperate to walk away with a win?
It would be churlish to begrudge Trump a victory if he does somehow walk North Korea back from the brink. There’s a chance that a man untroubled by precedents, rules, and strategic plans, might be able to offer something that achieves peace across one of the world’s hottest borders. The very fact he admits he might walk out of the talks if he’s not happy suggests that events are not going to follow the traditional path, whereby negotiations are usually concluded before the President arrives. Perhaps he believes that only he can strike a deal, which is either refreshingly optimistic or downright deluded. It might also be worth the gamble given the alternative is the very real chance of rapid military escalation up to and including the use of nukes. For Trump, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would certainly change history’s determination of his presidency, in the very same way that Nixon’s legacy is not just about Watergate but also China. It might not be enough to save his reputation but it might change history’s determination from “unqualified” to the more kindly “deeply flawed”.
Chance. Might. Could. Would.
The problem is that there’s very little evidence to suggest that any of this is within Donald Trump’s capacity. The answer to the North Korean problem has always lain in Beijing, and the crucial factor in this enigma was whatever passed at the recent (and rare) meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Xi.
One really hopes that Trump can prove the world wrong but, unfortunately, nothing about the setup makes it easy to rid oneself of the feeling that, somehow, he is being played by politicians who are far more astute and worldly. In Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump will be sitting down with a man for whom the “art of the deal” isn’t simply a good title for a bad book. It’s the matter of his own survival.