In a typically bizarre sequence of events late last week, President Trump hastily agreed to direct, one-on-one nuclear talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He would be the first American president ever to meet directly with a North Korean leader.
It was a stunning development, especially after Trump spent his entire term railing theatrically against his tyrannical counterpart, threatening "fire and fury," and repeatedly contradicting his own secretary of state about how to best move forward. And the shock of his abrupt move had barely set in when Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders more or less walked back the whole initiative on Saturday by saying that "denuclearization" — the intended outcome of the negotiations — was instead a precondition for the talks. That caveat is almost certainly a deal-breaker for the North Koreans. Yet because the only thing the president reliably sticks to is his morning Fox News briefing, no one at this point knows whether this summit will actually happen or not.
Let's assume for the sake of vindictive sub-tweeting that it will. While we should be rightly skeptical that this administration possesses the policy expertise, focus, or discipline to carry off a high-stakes summit, that doesn't mean that direct, "Track 1" talks would be worthless.
First, let's bracket the obvious problems with how this process unfolded. To get a quick public relations win, Trump leapt like a cat at a laser pointer for the opportunity to meet directly with Kim, apparently without thinking through the parameters of the discussion, what the U.S. and its allies in East Asia want to achieve and what they are willing to concede, or how other countries — like China — might react to such a dramatic about-face in the U.S. negotiating position. Basically, he agreed to board a plane without knowing the destination or fare.
To make matters worse, Trump will be badly hampered by his deliberate failure to properly staff the State Department — where the U.S. currently lacks an ambassador to South Korea, an undersecretary for arms control and international security, as well as a host of other senior officials that are usually in place by this point in an administration. These diplomats and their (similarly non-existent) underlings are crucial interlocutors in any set of complex negotiations, and they must be reinforced with area experts on North Korean and East Asian affairs who actually know what they're talking about. Do such exotic creatures even exist in a Trump menagerie that few reputable foreign policy veterans will agree to join and that doesn't even bother to hide its contempt for expertise?
Furthermore, unlike most presidents, Trump also lacks a trusted diplomat in the role of secretary of state, after appointing oil executive Rex Tillerson to the post and sidelining him repeatedly in a series of ritualistic public humiliations. It is almost impossible to imagine the gruff and detached Tillerson, a man who always looks like he just woke up from a dream about going to the dentist, capably babysitting the president during what will likely be the most massive international news story of the year, especially since Tillerson was incapable, in October, of convincingly denying that he called the president a "f—ing moron."
But many conservatives oppose these talks for another reason: They believe North Korea can't be trusted to stick to a deal at all, after the disastrous implosion of the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 by the Clinton administration and aimed at stemming the country's nuclear weapons development. Many contemporary conservatives don't believe in nuclear diplomacy full-stop, a stubborn position that intentionally misunderstands and misrepresents the long and successful history of negotiations to prevent nuclear proliferation, most recently with Iran. Others have chided the president for giving North Korea's bizarre leader what he wants and craves — recognition and equal standing with America.
God strike me down for saying these words, but Trump should be applauded for telling these dour warmongers to stuff it. If giving Kim Jong Un an ego boost is all it takes to resolve this terrifying crisis, it should have been done ages ago.
So while the president may be the last person you want seated across the table from Kim, his instincts, for once, are correct: The only way out of this crisis is through negotiations in which each side gives up something of real value. While critics like to point to the failure of the Agreed Framework as definitive proof that deals with iron-fisted tyrants can't be forged, the history of nuclear diplomacy says otherwise.
The U.S. negotiated multiple agreements with the Soviet Union, whose leaders had engaged in far more comprehensive subterfuge than North Korea. Not only did the USSR build its first atomic bomb with the help of stolen blueprints transferred via Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but Moscow also furtively placed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1961, triggering the most serious nuclear crisis the world has yet witnessed. Yet despite this history of mistrust, American and Soviet leaders got to work on a series of arms control agreements beginning in the 1970s that have successfully reduced global stockpiles from a Cold War high of more than 70,000 warheads to under 15,000 today.
America's defense hawks were incredibly hostile to these agreements when they were being negotiated, even when the president was a Republican. Yet those agreements have been remarkably effective, and have been deepened by a series of subsequent deals with the Russian Federation. The trust-building embedded in those incremental agreements also helped when it came time to secure Russian nuclear materials and sites in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse. Despite the deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow, neither side has moved to blow past agreed-upon warhead limits.
It's also not the case that there is no imaginable scenario short of war in which North Korea gives up its nukes altogether. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan all agreed to offload nuclear weapons they inherited with the collapse of the USSR. South Africa, which had built a handful of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, agreed to full, verifiable nuclear disarmament when the apartheid regime was in its final days. And countries like Libya and Iran have agreed to either abandon or truncate their nuclear programs in return for economic incentives or security guarantees. The Iranian agreement, in particular, was negotiated despite very real mutual resentment and distrust and a recent history of breakdown.
The failure of the security promises made to Ukraine (which was invaded by the very country that promised to respect its borders), and the fate of the Libyan regime (attacked and removed by NATO shortly after abandoning its nuclear program) are actually bigger stumbling blocks to a deal than any past behavior of the North Koreans. Even if we could convince the regime to pursue full denuclearization, will they believe any promises made about security given this history? If not, does the U.S. have any bright new ideas about how to build the kind of trust necessary to conclude a deal? Is the U.S. willing to provide credible security commitments to a government with one of the worst human rights records on the planet?
It is precisely these questions that the Trump administration either lacks answers to or has not even begun to ask. That's what makes the president's apparent determination to hop a flight to Pyongyang with his "I alone can fix it" bluster and his total lack of any comprehensible plan so worrisome. But if he can find the time in, between filing lawsuits against porn stars and filling the vacancy-of-the-week precipitated by the total chaos inside the White House, the president can still slow things down, staff up his foreign policy team, convene the relevant stakeholders, and try to show up in Pyongyang prepped, briefed, and ready to negotiate.
But don't hold your breath.