Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em
Ya gotta know when to fold ‘em
And when to walk away…
President Trump walked away.
That is, entering the second day of negotiations with Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un over the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, Trump determined that no agreement in accord with U.S. interests was currently possible. So rather than continue with next-to-meaningless discussions and sign a communique addressing some tertiary issues, Trump decided to end the conference politely, take a step back, and recalibrate.
For this approach, he has been praised by his proponents for adroit negotiating tactics and excoriated by his detractors as personally responsible for the “failed” summit.
The supporters simply support. The critics, however, have taken multiple tacks, for example, lambasting Trump’s personalized over-the-top praise for Kim (almost, but not quite, suggesting that he made the sun rise each morning). They charged Trump with inadequate substantive preparation; with ignoring expert advice from others who have negotiated (but failed); with not seeking specific commitments regarding numbers of nuclear weapons and missiles, amount of fissile material, and other technical detail.
Without being entirely cynical, the critics expected him to fail in the professed objective of securing a solid commitment to eliminate all Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. And they are not essentially unhappy that their predictions of failure have come to pass.
There are as many negotiation approaches as there are problems to be negotiated. The “classic” approach is to identify an objective, e.g., control of Soviet and U.S. intermediate range nuclear missiles (INF) and then work to find mutually acceptable arrangements to secure your objectives. For INF it was enhanced security at a lower level of weapons. And, indeed, working through multiple political dimensions with negotiations broken off and resumed over most of a decade, Washington and Moscow agreed December 1987 to eliminate all such weapons.
But negotiations are hardly condemned to success. They can fail outright as illustrated by Washington’s 1980 attempt to revise agreements regarding the presence of U.S. bases and military personnel in Greece. Officials of the U.S. embassy in Athens, including the ambassador, negotiated with a comparably senior Greek team. They failed, essentially because Washington could not meet Athens’ demands.
In 1982-83, however, we created a “special negotiator,” traveling directly from Washington with a small interagency U.S. team, operating with nominal connection to the Embassy. Our special negotiator identified the Greek government’s existential requirements and met them without sacrificing a scintilla of U.S. interests. It was a tour de force by the U.S. negotiator—one not subsequently duplicated, even by our negotiator.
Nor is it unique that a U.S. president would offer a sweeping negotiating proposal. Remember October 1986 when, at the Reykjavik Summit, President Reagan proposed total elimination of nuclear weapons—and Soviet Secretary General Gorbachev responded positively. But then Reagan walked away from the Summit as Gorbachev demanded the United States neuter the Strategic Defense Initiative as an analogue to denuclearization.
And anyone who says “flattery will get you nowhere,” hasn’t been flattered recently.
It is a canard to proclaim the negotiations “failed.” It is hardly trivial that Pyongyang has not conducted a nuclear test or fired a longer-range missile since Washington and Pyongyang have engaged. Two important albeit secondary nuclear sites are eliminated. Moreover, “atmospherics” between Pyongyang and Seoul are significantly improved with political-military tensions deflated. As a corollary, Seoul and Washington agreed to suspend large scale military exercises.
In dismissing charges the summit “failed,” SecState Pompeo noted, “We knew this would be a long and complex process. Now we will regroup with hopes of engaging again when the time is right.” Some pieces for ongoing negotiating could include:
- Phased elimination of specific economic/commercial sanctions;
- Neutral zones for naval vessels; demilitarization of elements in the DMZ;
- A formal (Treaty or declaration) conclusion to the Korean War, now only suspended under an armistice;
- Opening diplomatic posts in Washington and Pyongyang;
- Confidence building measures with U.S./ROK visits to DPRK nuclear facilities (matched by reciprocal DPNK visits to U.S. facilities in the ROK); and
- Detailed exchanges of information concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile holdings and production establishment.
To be sure, Washington has blown past Pyongyang’s egregious human rights record and draconian domestic rule. But we have turned both blind eyes to implacably vicious dictators in the past, e.g., “Uncle Joe” Stalin in WWII.
Our objective then was winning the war; now it is neutralizing/eliminating an accelerating nuclear threat without war.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.