President Trump is doing the right thing in pursuing peace with North Korea.
It feels odd to type those words, and you probably will not hear them repeated by members of America's foreign policy establishment over the next few days, as Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. A lot of smart people — including Trump's own aides — fear the president will do anything to proclaim the summit a success, even if it means trumpeting an agreement that somehow lets Kim keep his tiny nuclear arsenal largely intact.
They are right: That is a likely outcome — it is what happened, in fact, the first time Trump met Kim. But that's OK. Because not going to war with North Korea is better than going to war with North Korea. And Trump's strategy with regards to Kim, whatever its faults, makes war with that country less likely.
For more than a generation, American policy toward North Korea has been aimed mostly at keeping that country from obtaining or keeping a nuclear arsenal. That mission failed in 2006, and American presidents have been scrambling ever since to obtain denuclearization. That goal has never been achieved, and there is no reason to believe it ever will be.
No, it is not good that Kim has nuclear weapons at his disposal: The more such weapons that exist in the world, the more likely it is that one will be used — and that would be a disaster. But it is unlikely the United States can ever convince Kim to give up his weapons because he has one very important incentive to keep them: his personal and political survival. (As if to emphasize the point, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio this weekend posted a picture of a bloodied Muammar Gaddafi to Twitter — a warning to Venezuela's leaders during that country's crisis, but no doubt also a reminder to Kim that giving up a nuclear program can make a leader more vulnerable to his rivals, internal or external.)
If Kim will not voluntarily give up North Korea's weapons, there are two options remaining for Trump:
- Go to war. That would be a deadly disaster even in a best-case scenario.
- Decide to live with the weapons, pursue peace, and find a way to declare victory anyway. In other words, take steps to reduce the likelihood North Korea will ever decide it needs or wants to use its powerful weapons in anger.
The second track appears to be the one that Trump is taking — even if he still talks about denuclearization — and thank goodness.
Again, it stinks that North Korea has nuclear weapons, which are a moral abomination no matter who possesses them. Kim is unequivocally a bad guy. But the United States has done business with villainous nuclear states before — we practiced détente with the Soviet Union during the 1970s, and we remained trading partners with China after the massacre at Tiananmen Square. There were compromises involved in both cases. But you know what? The Cold War stayed cold, by and large.
All of this is complicated, of course, by Trump's involvement. He has a thing for murderous autocrats, and his unending flattery of Kim is — and should be — cringe-inducing for anybody who loves liberty, human rights, or basic decency. Trump being Trump, there is also an element of dishonesty involved: No, the United States was not about to go to war with North Korea before he became president. But those qualities, for once, might make Trump the perfect man for this moment. Only Nixon could go to China; it may be that only Trump can go to Pyongyang.
Of course, efforts to get other countries to stay nuclear-free might stand a better chance if Trump had not recently withdrawn from the INF Treaty. He also appears intent on enlarging America's already-substantial nuclear arsenal for the first time in decades. "Do as I say, not as I do" is generally a poor strategy, no matter the issue.
Some problems get so big, they can't be solved. They can only be managed. The U.S. foreign policy establishment has not admitted that North Korea's nuclear program has moved into that category, but it should be apparent to just about everybody else. So it is time to try to move to a world in which we live with North Korea having nukes so that, well, we can live.
The process may be messy, America's hawks will complain endlessly, and it will get tiresome to hear Trump promote himself for a Nobel Peace Prize over the next year. But if the result saves lives, so be it. Pursuing peace with North Korea is the right thing to do.