Home/Daniel Larison/The Administration’s All-or-Nothing Diplomacy Cannot Succeed

The Administration’s All-or-Nothing Diplomacy Cannot Succeed

Mike Pompeo, CIA director (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Mike Pompeo has traveled to North Korea in an attempt to make some progress in negotiations, but the administration’s unrealistic demands stand in the way of that:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in North Korea on Friday for a series of talks aimed at persuading the country to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs — a mission that in his conversations with at least two outside experts he has said was doomed from the outset [bold mine-DL].

The dire assessment from Mr. Pompeo comes despite that fact that he is one of the most visible proponents of North Korea talks in the Trump administration.

If the administration isn’t prepared to reduce its demands and accept far less than what they have been expecting in the past, Pompeo’s assessment is correct. North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and an administration with a better understanding of the situation would have realized this a lot earlier. The main flaw in Trump’s North Korea policy all along is that it is trying to make North Korea give up something that it considers essential to the regime’s survival, and administration officials seem unable to grasp that no government would ever agree to something like that. Since the administration refuses to accept anything less than North Korea’s capitulation, it has guaranteed that the policy can’t produce anything other than failure on its own terms. If that’s what happens, it’s an unfortunate waste of the diplomatic process that South Korea initiated.

Instead of acknowledging that its demands are unrealistic and adapting to the reality that North Korea isn’t going to disarm, it seems that the administration is preparing to go back down the dead-end path of sanctions:

If failure is inevitable, Mr. Pompeo wants it to come more quickly this time, so the administration can return to its maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and diplomatic isolation of North Korea, he has told advisers.

If the administration decides to return to a campaign of maximum pressure, officials have privately acknowledged, the administration may not again be able to persuade the world that Mr. Kim is out of control and cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons.

The other reality that Trump and Pompeo aren’t accepting is that the so-called “maximum pressure” is already over and isn’t coming back. Maximum pressure is not what brought North Korea to the table in any case, and resuming that pressure campaign isn’t going to have any success. The international support that the U.S. had been receiving on North Korea began to dissipate as soon as North Korea showed a willingness to engage. The U.S. is picking so many fights with China and others on other fronts that they have no reason to go along with what Washington wants.

Even though he apparently knows that disarmament isn’t happening, Pompeo is going to have to go through the motions of chasing after an unreachable goal for the rest of the year to keep the president happy:

Still, Mr. Pompeo must keep trying to persuade Mr. Kim to reverse course for at least another few months, and probably until after November’s midterm elections, largely because Mr. Trump will not stand for an earlier declaration of failure, according to those who have spoken with him about North Korea.

There is an opportunity to negotiate for limited concessions from North Korea, but it won’t last forever and it seems likely to be squandered in pursuit of an impossible goal. By repeatedly insisting that the U.S. won’t settle for anything less than their maximalist demands, the administration has ensured that the U.S. will come away from the process with nothing. The administration’s all-or-nothing approach to diplomacy with both North Korea and Iran shows just how little interest they have in genuine diplomacy and the compromise that it requires.

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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