By Noah Feldman
Like so much else that President Donald Trump does, the North Korea negotiations dance is all about breaking the unwritten rules. Past presidents would have never allowed themselves to be put in the position where they could appear to be jerked around by a tin-pot dictator. Trump genuinely doesn’t care.
But how far would Trump go in breaking the rules, especially if a Nobel Peace Prize were in the offing? Would Trump be prepared to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War and freezing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program without insisting that North Korea definitively denuclearize?
In announcing Friday that the June 12 summit in Singapore was back on (after calling it off last week), Trump said, “We are going to deal and we are really going to start a process.” He added: “Remember what I say, we will see what we will see.”
A partial deal would essentially mimic President Barack Obama’s deal with Iran, which Trump long condemned and from which he has withdrawn. Making a deal with North Korea that is essentially the same as the Iran deal would be an extraordinary act of political self-refutation.
Yet Trump embodies what you might call the Walt Whitman principle of politics:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
It’s therefore conceivable that Trump would be willing to make a partial deal with North Korea.
I can think of at least two important players who seem to think so. One is Kim Jong Un. It seems almost impossible that he would permanently give up his nuclear capability – his only significant bargaining chip with the rest of the world. That way lies the fate of Moammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein. If Kim is actually hoping to get some sort of an agreement out of Trump, he must imagine that it’s possible Trump would agree to something less than full denuclearization.
The other is John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser. A wily, experienced operator like Bolton doesn’t just accidentally bring up Libya as an example when discussing the North Korean talks. The best interpretation of his remarks is that Bolton knew perfectly well that North Korea would respond to the Libya comparison by making a fuss and threatening to withdraw from the negotiations. If Bolton expected that to happen, he must’ve wanted it to happen – because he fears that if the summit takes place, Trump will be tempted to agree to a partial deal so he can declare victory and go to Oslo to pick up his Nobel.
For a hawk-like Bolton, the partial-deal scenario is a nightmare. Would it actually be so bad? Gary Samore, who was Obama’s arms-control coordinator and has many years of experience negotiating with North Korea, thinks otherwise. He argues that it would be valuable if negotiations led to a test freeze that could be sustained for years and then lead to a partial dismantling of existing weapons.
The basic logic of Samore’s view is that other than negotiations, there is no credible way to pressure Kim. Negotiations and peace are better than confrontation and war.
This is, of course, the same logic that led to Obama’s Iran deal. If you think that deal made sense, there’s reason to think that a partial deal with North Korea would, too.
The downside of a partial Trump-Kim deal is that it would, in effect, reward Kim for the conduct that brought him onto Trump’s radar screen in the first place: testing nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles. That’s not ideal, because it sends the message to North Korea that the way to get concessions is to behave aggressively and ramp up fears of war.
The same message is also undesirable when directed to other nuclear powers like Pakistan or near-nuclear powers like Iran. It says that the best way to get concessions from the U.S. in the Trump era is to make threats, blow things up and then offer to negotiate.
Most significant, rewarding Kim sends a broader global message that confrontation and bluster is the way to win any sort of attention and make progress in any negotiation with Trump. What works in nuclear policy can also work in trade policy. After all, confrontation followed by negotiation seems to be Trump’s own impulse, as seen in his trade policy toward China
There are global systemic costs to this high-risk approach to international problems. Raising the temperature in the hopes of being rewarded for lowering it only works if the threat is real.
That’s one-way wars start, whether trade wars or shooting wars. When both sides are trying to signal that they are dangerous and that their threats are serious, it becomes easy to misunderstand the other side’s strategy. Bluff leads to counter-bluff. Pretty quickly, it can become impossible to back away from threats.
When seen in the light of the Iran deal, it might make sense to pursue a similar deal with North Korea. But from a broader perspective, there’s reason to fear the possibility that Trump would make peace with Kim without extracting meaningful concessions from him. Just this once, Bolton might be right.
Noah Feldman is an author at Bloomberg Quint.
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