That sure went quick.
If you blinked, you might have missed the historic summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The two leaders met privately, save for interpreters, for less than an hour, and by the afternoon were signing a statement that promised security guarantees from the United States and complete denuclearization by North Korea.
What does it mean? On one level, very little. Observers have noted that North Korea has been promising complete denuclearization for over 25 years, a promise which has done nothing to impede it from building a growing nuclear arsenal and an increasingly sophisticated array of delivery vehicles. A mere reiteration of that promise, with no agreement at all on timetables or verification measures or anything else is worth very little in its own right.
By contrast, merely meeting with the North Korean leader was a long sought-after concession by America, and the announced cancelation of military exercises — which Trump agreed were "provocative" — gave further support to the North Korean position that we are the reason that conflict endures on the peninsula. So perhaps the U.S. president really did just get outfoxed by his far better-prepared counterpart.
But this presumes that Trump's primary objective was to achieve denuclearization with minimal consequence to America's own position in Asia. What if that wasn't the goal at all?
During the campaign, Trump expressed at best a profound ambivalence about America's existing system of alliances. He questioned whether American troops should remain in Korea, and wondered whether it wouldn't be better if Japan and South Korea built their own nuclear arsenals rather than relying on America's nuclear umbrella. Trump's disdain for good relations with our European and North American allies was on clear display last week. It's reasonable to assume that preserving America's position in Northeast Asia is no higher priority.
This has some bearing on the plausibility of the Singapore summit as a sign of true progress towards peace on the peninsula. If denuclearization was the American aim, then we always had an extraordinarily heavy lift. North Korea is not confused about the possible consequences if they were to give up their weapons. They saw what happened to Moammar Gadhafi, who agreed to completely eliminate his nuclear program, leaving him helpless when a NATO-led coalition decided a few years later that Libya was better off without him. It is realistic to assume that the minimum concession Kim would demand for a verifiable agreement to eliminate his arsenal is the end of an American presence in South Korea. His Chinese patrons would no doubt concur. But a massive American concession of that kind would normally be a complete nonstarter.
For years, America has sought to use economic pressure and occasional threats of force to change that calculation, both in Pyongyang and Beijing, to very little avail. But the unilateral concessions Trump made signal something else: that an American withdrawal is not completely off the table. Not because, as North Korea's state media would have it, America has come to fear North Korea's prowess, but because the new American president sees the alliance with South Korea kind of the way he described the annual military exercises: expensive and provocative.
Does that mean it's likely that negotiations toward denuclearization will proceed in a far more productive manner than they have in the past? Possibly. But North Korea is unlikely to reciprocate with any large gestures of its own any time soon; it has far too much to lose. So what happens if negotiations break down, and Trump doesn't have anything to brag about for months, or even years?
The obvious risk is that Trump could shift very rapidly back into his bellicose posture of last year. He could threaten a first strike against North Korea's facilities if progress did not speed up, or even demonstrate the accuracy of American missiles somewhere that Kim could see it. And with John Bolton running the National Security Council, Trump will likely have someone whispering in his ear who would be more than happy to see such provocations provide justification for an actual attack.
But would the president actually give the order for a strike? The evidence that he wants to get into a war of anything more than tweets is so far thin on the ground. It's just as plausible that, if talks stalled, Trump would gin up a crisis, threatening fire and fury, only to announce some new large concession — whether symbolic or substantive — and proclaim himself a peacemaker once again. That, after all, is precisely what he has already done.
Will Kim understand that? Or will he miscalculate and stumble into a catastrophic conflict? It's impossible to know. But he will at least have the benefit of familiarity with Trump's strategy. After all, alternating provocation and conciliation, refusing to abide by diplomatic norms, and throwing ally and adversary alike perpetually off balance are the way the Kim family has been playing geopolitics for three generations now.
A repeated cycle of peacemaking and provocation is unlikely to lead to successful denuclearization. And it is bound to lead to ever more jangled nerves in Seoul and Tokyo. But it will keep Donald Trump on the front page, threatening war and promising peace, the one indispensable element in bi-polar peninsula diplomacy.
Which might be the actual overriding administration objective in the first place.