Trump spoke at a rally in Pennsylvania over the weekend, and Daniel Dale was reporting on the event. The president said this:
"They want to denuclearize. Nobody had heard that," Trump says of the North Korea, though experts say that is exceptionally unlikely. Of his meeting, he says, "I may leave fast or we may make the greatest deal for the world."
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) March 11, 2018
Trump’s last line here struck me as potentially very significant. He has made a point of denouncing every deal the U.S. has ever made as a bad one negotiated by stupid leaders (he thinks the nuclear deal with Iran is one of the worst of all), and he has said that he thinks the mark of a good negotiator is a willingness to walk away. Barring some dramatic change, Trump will likely renege on the nuclear deal with Iran in two months, and that has obvious implications for negotiations with North Korea in the future. The president will be making a very public show of his administration’s unwillingness to honor commitments made in good faith later this year, and the North Korean government will have more evidence from this administration that the U.S. can’t be trusted.
I was reminded of this while reading Ross Douthat’s column this morning. Douthat writes:
But still, any lasting deal with the paranoid kingdom north of the 38th parallel would have to persuade Pyongyang that we might attack if they keep raising the nuclear ante and that we really don’t care about toppling them otherwise. So it is potentially helpful to our negotiations that Trump combines a temperamental bellicosity with a deep skepticism about the democracy-promoting objectives of U.S. foreign policy over the last 20 years.
This won’t prevent him from bungling things; it shouldn’t make anyone rest easy. It just means that if we are to hope for any progress in these negotiations, we have to place some of that hope in Trump’s most Trumpish qualities, and from his rejection of bipartisan tendencies that have not saved us from this brink.
I understand what he is trying to say here, but it is odd to refer to “Trump’s most Trumpish qualities” on foreign policy without mentioning that he is a determined opponent of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This is the most recent successful nonproliferation agreement, and Trump hates it. Trump may have no interest in the “democracy-promoting objectives” of previous administrations, but he also loathes any agreement that requires the U.S. to concede anything. He is in perfect agreement with his own party’s most hawkish members that most diplomatic bargains are appeasement.
For example, he wrongly believes that the Obama administration “gave” Iran $150 billion as part of the nuclear deal, and he is outraged that the U.S. didn’t “get” anything tangible from the JCPOA. The money he is talking about was Iran’s, they didn’t get nearly as much of it as Trump thinks they did, and unfreezing Iranian assets was an inevitable part of any agreement that led to their acceptance of restrictions on their nuclear program. In his mind, Iran’s verifiable commitment not to develop and build nuclear weapons doesn’t count as a win. None of that matters to him, just as it doesn’t matter to him that the IAEA has confirmed ten times in a row that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. What rankles him is the feeling that the U.S. was somehow taken for a ride because Iran wasn’t forced to give up absolutely everything. If it were up to him, Iran would have to commit to getting rid of its nuclear program all together along with shutting down their missile program and changing their entire foreign policy. If that is what he thinks about a nuclear deal that restricted a nuclear program in a state that never had nuclear weapons, we have to assume that his idea of a “good” deal with a nuclear weapons state is equally unrealistic and unobtainable.
Keeping all of this in mind, we should pay attention when Trump suggests that he may go to a meeting with Kim only to “leave fast.” We can be reasonably sure that he isn’t going to secure “the greatest deal for the world” because we know in advance that his terms aren’t going to be acceptable for North Korea. He is approaching the meeting with the misunderstanding that “they want to denuclearize” when they definitely do not, and so he will be expecting them to make an offer that won’t be forthcoming. Thanks to Trump’s poor grasp of foreign policy issues and his narcissism–two other very “Trumpish qualities”–he doesn’t know that denuclearization is unrealistic and he is vain enough to think that he is the first one to get them to agree to it.