Herbert London: The Unlikely Summit

Mar 21, 2018

Lawrence Eagleburger, a key President Reagan adviser, told the president to remove a reference to Star Wars in a national speech. The president balked. Eagleburger tried again and again he failed to persuade Reagan. Clearly the president marched to his own drummer and, in this case, employed use of the theoretical Star War possibilities to extract concessions from Soviet leaders.

It is worth recalling that historical moment with the present stance adopted by President Trump and the prospective summit with North Korea. President Trump’s high-wire act is fraught with peril. His advisers have argued for conventional diplomacy, but that simply isn’t Trump.

In agreeing to meet with Kim Jong Un the president has made a stunning concession. North Korea has longed for a direct summit with a U.S. president in order to establish its bona fides as an Asian power, overlooking the devastation precipitated by its government on the North Korean population.

Although President Trump noted that sanctions will remain intact, North Korea has been granted a reward prior to verifiable steps toward denuclearization. Despite any clear signal North Korea has changed its nuclear weapons program, recognition of one kind or another has been obtained.

In discussing his opening to China, President Nixon argued that negotiations should involve little more than agreement on structure. What each side receives is not a function of “blue sky” conversation. Just as litigators should already know the answer to questions they pose to witnesses, we should have in hand a well carved out plan for de-nuclearization along with no-limit verification procedures.

To do any less is to raise expectations to an unrealistic level based on “good will” acceptance of North Korea assurances. For Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Obama, accepting North Korea as a nuclear power is a good idea that forestalls military engagement. It might also be noted it is a form of preemptive appeasement.

Yet – and there is a yet – one wonders if Trump can pull this off. He sees himself as a master negotiator; if he comes away from this summit with little to show, he will face embarrassment and, more significantly, the U.S. will have lost global prestige. Trump surely must recognize these risks. If I were Trump, I would insist on wheels at the bottom of my chair so that I can rapidly remove myself from negotiations if things go off track.

The entire history of U.S.-North Korean negotiations has been fraught with lies. President Clinton provided food and fuel aid to North Korea with the assumption it would lead to the cessation of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. He was played like a Stradivarius. In fact, those measures reinforced the North Korean extortion tactics passed on from grandfather to father to son.

Can the past be undone? Can North Korea shed its instinctive act of dissimulation? Is Donald Trump our Wizard working behind the curtain for a brave new world of nuclear stability? Will he offer sweeteners such as early relaxation of sanctions?

The public jury awaits a verdict since global order may depend on it.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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