By Bill Emmott
One of the difficulties in evaluating and analysing the foreign-policy initiatives made by President Donald Trump is that, more than with any previous president that I can remember, the swirling winds of domestic U.S. politics get in the way. But another difficulty lies in Trump's style and personality, which have changed the manner in which expectations about foreign affairs are formed.
Expectations matter in foreign affairs, just as they do in financial markets, for they help to shape negotiating positions during summits, and they shape actions and responses after those international summits have taken place. The fact that President Trump chooses to influence those expectations himself, chiefly through Twitter but also speeches at rallies of his supporters, makes such expectations an important part of the diplomacy but also makes the diplomacy itself harder to assess.
Trump's latest summit with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, in Vietnam in the final days in February provides a classic example. Their first, certainly historic, summit in Singapore in June last year was loudly proclaimed by Trump to have been a huge success, but most analysts saw it as a failure. The Vietnam summit ended in a seemingly clear failure, given that Trump chose to end the meeting early and so walked away from negotiations. Yet paradoxically, it looks as if that failure was actually a success.
A big part of the problem in U.S.-North Korea relations, and especially in these two summits, lies in the big gap that has opened up between the agenda that is said to be under discussion and the real, underlying, strategic agenda. Trump's mismanagement of expectations is largely responsible for this, for he, with some collaboration by the government of South Korea, proclaimed the official agenda to be the denuclearisation of North Korea. Yet everybody knows that if success or failure were to be measured by North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, then failure would be guaranteed.
As North Korea has spent much of the past 30 years developing nuclear weapons along with missile capability to be able credibly to threaten their use, the likelihood of it agreeing to give those weapons up is zero, especially when the country demanding they be relinquished changes its leadership every four to eight years. A deal done with today's White House could never be considered to be binding on future presidents. After all, North Korea will be well aware of the fact that the Trump administration itself has withdrawn from the denuclearisation agreement with Iran struck by the Obama administration, along with the European Union, Russia and China, only in 2015.
Nevertheless the fear that spread around the world during 2016 and 2017, when North Korea was conducting frequent tests of its nuclear bombs and of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, was a fear not of North Korea possessing nukes but of it actually using them. Given the country's track record, the fear was reasonable. With nukes, the risk was that it might lash out at neighbours, including Japan, and that it might even make an attempt to finally win the Korean War, more than six decades after the ceasefire in 1953.
The first Trump-Kim summit, in Singapore, was widely rated a failure because America ended up giving North Korea so much in return for so little. It gave it credibility and legitimacy, it helped it re-establish close diplomatic relations with China, and it helped justify the covert relaxation by China, Russia and others of the economic sanctions imposed on the North. In response, Kim Jong Un barely had to offer anything, beyond a continued willingness to talk.
It was as if superpower diplomacy was being conducted in a kind of fantasy world, with Trump even boasting of how he had received "beautiful" letters from Kim following the summit and of how the pair of them had "fallen in love." Fortunately, perhaps, unlike in most real love affairs, nothing then happened.
That is why the Vietnam summit, and the events which have followed it, represent a welcome return to reality. The summit broke up early, according to Trump's account, because North Korea was demanding unrealistic relaxations to sanctions while offering no concrete steps towards denuclearisation. It has been followed by reports, released by the U.S., that North Korea has been rebuilding a missile test site which it had claimed to have destroyed and closed last year. That release was followed by threats that even tighter sanctions might now be imposed.
Whether or not the reports turn out to be true or significant, they indicate that U.S.-North Korea relations have entered a new, much more reality-based phase. In truth, there are really only two feasible objectives regarding North Korea and its nuclear deterrent: one is the de-escalation of tensions between the nuke-wielding North Korea and the U.S., Japan and South Korea; the other is the long-term containment of North Korea's actions and aspirations.
Following Vietnam, the world looks to be a large step closer to both of those objectives. Trump's narcissistic but very personal approach to diplomacy has succeeded in de-escalating the situation, not least because he has ceased to make his own threats of unleashing "fire and fury" on North Korea, but also because Kim seems to see no further benefit in showing off his weapons by testing them. And the decision to walk away in Vietnam has indicated that tight sanctions will be maintained.
Compared with that tough statement, Trump's decision, also subsequent to the summit, to cancel large-scale military exercises between the US and South Korea, supposedly on grounds of cost, seems fairly unimportant. Exercises can always be reinstated. Trump himself has now defined the task of denuclearisation as being something for the very long term, so containment is what we are left with.
With such an impulsive U.S. president, one cannot be sure of what will happen next. But if he sticks to where he has left things after Vietnam, then the failure of the second Trump-Kim summit may actually come to be seen in future as having been a success.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)