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Home/Daniel Larison/All-or-Nothing Diplomacy Always Yields Nothing

All-or-Nothing Diplomacy Always Yields Nothing

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with U.S. President Donald Trump during the Singapore summit June 12.

NPR reports on the current state of U.S.-North Korea “talks”:

“The president still has faith” that Kim can be an effective negotiating partner, said one person closely familiar with U.S. deliberations. The person asked not to be identified citing the sensitivity of the matter.

But elsewhere within the U.S. government, there is a widespread “loss of faith.” The source said U.S. strategists are baffled that the North Korean ruler has seemed unable to spur his country to keep what they see as his commitments.

The reported bafflement of “strategists” is a bit worrisome, because it suggests that these “strategists” haven’t been paying attention for the last 18 months. Kim didn’t make the commitments they think he made, and so he isn’t failing to “spur” anything. As he and other North Korean government officials keep saying, they are waiting for the U.S. to change its approach from the maximalist demands that the administration has been insisting on throughout this process. North Korea has been remarkably clear that they aren’t going to wait on the U.S. forever, and they have repeatedly mentioned that the end of this year was how long the administration had to make the necessary change.

Meanwhile the Trump administration seems to have internalized its own propaganda about the extent of progress made with North Korea, and that has created dangerous false expectations of what North Korea is supposed to do. North Korea knows it didn’t commit to doing anything yet, but the administration promotes the fiction that they have committed to disarm and need to “fulfill” those commitments. The only way that there is going to be significant progress in talks with North Korea is if the administration recognizes that its maximalism is a dead end and they abandon it. Unfortunately, because they have been lying to us and to themselves that they are already making progress, they can’t admit that they need to reduce their demands and offer North Korea something as an incentive to make concessions. Trump’s North Korea policy is stuck because the administration can’t acknowledge that the one thing they insist on getting–North Korean disarmament–is never happening.

One reason they can’t acknowledge this is pride. After dragging Obama for his “terrible” deal with Iran, reneging on the JCPOA, and claiming that any deal with North Korea would be even better than that one, Trump and his officials would have a hard time admitting that they haven’t even made a dent with their all-or-nothing, hard-line approach. Another reason is that hard-liners are hung up on the belief that “maximum pressure” can force other states to do what they want, and so they assume it is only a matter of time and sufficient pressure before North Korea caves. Changing their policy at this point would be an admission of failure they don’t want to make, and they refuse to admit failure as long they think that “maximum pressure” is going to deliver the goods. The reality is that there has been significantly less pressure on North Korea over the last year, and even before that the pressure campaign was not what made North Korea interested in talking. The Trump administration is waiting on something that will never occur, and in the meantime they are frittering away their opportunity to reach a more modest arms control agreement. As usual, an all-or-nothing approach to diplomacy leaves us with nothing.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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