By David K. Shipler
Whether Kim Jong-un knows it or not, he is about to play the role of Donald Trump’s foil in the farcical vaudeville routine that the American presidency has become. Unless Trump blunders egregiously (always a possibility), the Singapore meeting—no matter what its result—promises to entertain his American supporters with tough-guy antics and, possibly, the pretense of a “deal” that can be simplified by Fox News into an adoring sound bite. If the meeting blows up and Trump storms out in a blizzard of tweets, he’s a strong, combative leader who takes no prisoners. If the meeting’s vibes are friendly and promising, Trump is a clever negotiator who maneuvers his adversaries into compromise. Trump can’t lose. Only the world can.
It’s wise to remember that Trump, who touts himself as a champion deal-maker, has not made a single deal in nearly 18 months in office. He’s been more of a deal-breaker: on Iran, the climate, trade, and so on. His record in his real estate and branding business is little better, tarnished by a string of bankruptcies, failed ventures, scams, and refusals to pay struggling subcontractors. His “deal” to assist American workers lies in tatters after his hostile regulatory decisions and extremist court appointments, not to mention his new tariffs, which are expected to hurt more American laborers than will be helped.
There is nothing in Trump’s background to suggest a capacity to bargain well over complex issues. He fumbled around on health care with no effect. His Republican colleagues in Congress passed the tax bill without significant input from him. He is instead a showman and a propagandist who convinces a large minority of Americans that when he says things are good, they are good. His top priority seems to be fostering a cult of personality, which could be deadly to democracy if our constitutional institutions and reflexes fail.
From what we have seen of him, Trump values his cult of personality far above the national security of the United States and, therefore, the denuclearization of North Korea. As a bully, he is making the United States into a bully as well, as we’ve witnessed; a bully kicks the smaller and the weaker (e.g., France, Germany, Canada, Mexico), and hesitates before the strong (e.g., Russia and China).
Now, it must be recognized that employing bullying against bullies, or convincing the dictator on the other side of the globe that you’re just crazy enough to unleash a nuclear firestorm, might make the “Little Rocket Man” tremble a little. It’s reasonable to speculate that Kim is sitting down with Trump because he thinks the US president is frighteningly unhinged—yet vulnerable to flattery.
Indeed, Trump has flattered himself about this meeting. Before abruptly canceling the summit and then restoring it, Trump and his acolytes had pumped it up so much that the president seemed to need it for both ego and domestic politics. Trump voters interviewed at recent rallies cited peace with North Korea, albeit prematurely, as a justification for their continued support. That seemed to give Kim leverage.
Therefore, if he’s clever enough, Kim might be able to out-maneuver Trump in practical reality: a phased reduction in sanctions in exchange for a very gradual phase-out of the nuclear program, an elimination that is never quite completed or an inspection regime that doesn’t penetrate all the mountain facilities hidden and buried in the North. But Trump’s fantasy world would remain, because talks could be protracted, and it would take a long time for the reality to catch up with his propaganda machine’s fiction: Victory, he would crow, as negotiations proceed slowly and keep American voters on a hopeful edge, along which only Trump can lead the way.
Trump and his collaborators in the White House and Congress would hail his iconoclastic approach to foreign relations: stare them down, shout them down, bulldoze them aside, and to hell with the wimpy experts with their obliquely polite diplo-speak. As long as Kim plays along and pretends to be disarming while getting the benefits of reduced sanctions, Trump can claim progress and success right up to his reelection. Yes, reelection. Kim will get his way, if he wants to keep the nukes, by stringing Trump along, and Trump will get his crown as deal-maker, at least in the eyes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
Of course it’s to Trump’s credit that he agreed to talk to Kim without setting preconditions or casting a summit as a big prize that North Korea had to pay for in advance. That straight-laced, uptight diplomatic calculation might be useful in some cases, but it’s not always productive, and it’s often taken by the opposition as humiliating. Further, if the US and North Korea can establish continuing dialogue to avert military miscalculation in that tinderbox of the Korean Peninsula, devastating warfare might be avoided. That would be a huge achievement, and a legitimate feather in Trump’s cap.
The trouble is, Trump has made the United States untrustworthy. If Trump’s passion for self-puffery sets the two countries on a path to a real “deal” that Kim would observe, bravo. But if Kim is truly smart, he will insist that no agreement is valid without US Senate ratification, so that Trump or the next president could not toss away a solemn international accord like used Kleenex.