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Maximalist Demands and Diplomacy Don’t Mix

When the U.S. makes the maximalist demands that hard-liners want, it is a good sign that there is no desire for a diplomatic solution.

Trump administration delusions about what North Korea agreed to do have collided with reality:

“The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization,” an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman said in statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency a few hours after Pompeo’s departure. The official said that U.S. calls for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” run “counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit.”

It could not be clearer that North Korea has never agreed to disarm, and it should be equally clear that the Trump administration badly misunderstood what North Korea committed to in Singapore. There has been willful misunderstanding on the part of the Trump administration that North Korea’s denuclearization rhetoric has something to do with agreeing to their unilateral disarmament. That has caused the administration to make false claims that North Korea has agreed to disarm, and it has encouraged them to continue down the dead-end road of insisting on this.

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea suffers from many of the same flaws as its handling of Iran and the nuclear deal. In both cases, the administration issues ultimatums and threatens more punishment if the terms they have dictated aren’t accepted, and in both cases the administration makes maximalist demands that one has to assume are designed to be rejected. Trump and other administration officials view negotiations with Iran and North Korea as a matter of working out the details of the other side’s surrender, and they consistently fail to grasp that there are some things that the other side is never going to concede.

Trump reneged on the JCPOA because it “failed” to achieve maximalist goals that were never possible, and he has bungled the opening that South Korea created with the DPRK because he and his administration remain wedded to maximalist goals that have always been out of reach. Hard-liners that view diplomacy in zero-sum, all-or-nothing terms are unsurprisingly very bad at negotiating with other governments. Because they insist that the other side give up everything it values most, their efforts predictably yield nothing of value for the U.S.

Hard-liners have neither the patience nor the willingness to compromise that successful diplomacy requires, and they are always looking for an excuse to declare that diplomacy is useless. They make demands that they have to know won’t be acceptable to the other side. That way, they can claim that they “tried diplomacy” before moving on to the more aggressive policies that they have wanted to pursue all along. When the U.S. makes the maximalist demands that hard-liners want, it is a good sign that there is no desire for a diplomatic solution because the necessary compromise that such a solution entails has already been deemed unacceptable.



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