World

Meet the New Hubris, Same as the Old Hubris

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, June 12, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Like other presidents played by the Kim regime, Trump acts as if he is different.

Becoming president of the United States is one of the most difficult and consequential achievements for any person, in any place, in the entire world. The climb begins invariably against long odds, the process is grueling — for the candidate, his family, and his allies — and the prize is immense. With victory comes an informal title, the most powerful man in the world.

It’s impossible to begin that journey without a measure of faith — in God, sometimes, in your team, sometimes, and in yourself, usually. If you decide to run, there has to be a belief not just that you are up to the challenge of the race and the office, but also that you are the best person available to take up that task. And there is no more enthusiastic congregant in the church of the self than Donald J. Trump.

The hours after the Singapore summit were a festival of apparent double standards and apparent partisan hackery. Progressives who cheered Obama’s promises to talk to dictators and applauded his trip to Cuba now talked gravely of the terrible symbolism of Trump’s handshake with Kim Jong-un. Conservatives who mocked Obama’s “weakness” somehow considered Trump’s summit a diplomatic masterstroke. Twitter filled with pictorial and video mashups of the worst reversals. Tweets from 2016 competed with Tweets from 2018. Hypocrisy abounded.

Or did it?

Go back to the president’s faith. Go back to his team’s faith. Time and time again, the American president and his supporters have been animated by a deep belief. I’m different, he thinks. He’s different, they think. Each new president comes into office not just keenly aware of his predecessor’s failures but also believing that he can right the ship, that he has the correct approach, and that the laws that seemed to apply to his predecessors won’t apply to him.

Of course you don’t want Obama to meet with dictators. But Trump is different, right?

In other words, there’s a presidential sucker born every four years. In spite of the deep differences from president to president, incentives are still incentives, national interests are still national interests, and weakness is still weakness. The laws of power politics and international diplomacy still apply.

Consider the Singapore summit. Why, pray tell, would North Korea ever give up nuclear weapons if the race to build the weapons — and the race to create a credible missile program — landed the world’s pariah state not just in the center of the world stage but also in the position to demand (and receive!) important concessions from the most powerful nation in the history of the world?

The image of Trump and Kim together in front of the flags of their countries sent a message to the North Korean people that they had arrived. It was a vindication of juche, the national ideology of self-reliance and cultural and racial superiority. When Kim extracted from Trump a promise to end “war games” with the South, it was a vindication of North Korean strength. Unless reversed, the decision also undermines American and South Korean military readiness.

Then, consider this absurd tweet:

Or this:

You would have thought that Trump journeyed to Pyongyang and personally witnessed the North destroy its nuclear arsenal. You would have thought that Trump had reached final agreement on a treaty he could present to the Senate, a binding commitment that makes the North meet verifiable goals according to a schedule and system of rigorous inspections.

But no. There is nothing like that. Instead, there’s a document that’s less specific than repeated, previous North Korean pledges to “denuclearize” — a term that, by North Koreans lights, includes America’s withdrawing its protection from the South. By contrast with this document, the (inadequate) Iranian inspection regime in the dreadful Iran deal looks like abject Iranian surrender.

The only saving grace of the Trump–Kim summit is that there are no American promises and commitments to North Korea like those that rendered the Iran agreement so repugnant.

And how do Trump’s defenders justify this rhetoric? With faith, mainly. In the future, negotiators will hammer out the details. Surely North Korea won’t double-cross Donald J. Trump. He’s no Barack Obama. He’s no George W. Bush. He’s no Bill Clinton.

Trump tweeted today that before he took office “people were assuming that we were going to war with North Korea.” He acts as if his deal averted military conflict. But that’s false. Just as the choice was never between war and Obama’s Iran deal, the choice is not and was not between war and . . . whatever Trump negotiated in Singapore.

The message has been sent far and wide to potential foes across the globe. The path to national greatness, including a personal audience with this American president, is the path to nuclear weapons.

Smart observers know that there is a difference between Trump and the Trump administration. At his meetings, Trump will make extravagant promises. He’ll hype his dealmaking. He’ll seem to agree to things like a clean Dream Act or ponder an assault-weapons ban. Then, later, his administration will clean up the mess. They’ll walk Trump back from the brink of error.

Yesterday we saw the dangerous international version of personal presidential enthusiasm and impulsiveness. So now is the time for his administration to take over — to preserve effective deterrence, to reach verifiable, binding agreements (if possible), and to contain the damage from the images and boasts that have already spread across the world.

Unless more rational heads can prevail, Trump’s hubris will continue to elevate Kim and harm our national interests. The message has been sent far and wide to potential foes across the globe. The path to national greatness, including a personal audience with this American president, is the path to nuclear weapons. It’s the path to a ballistic-missile program. This week, Trump made America look weak. This week, Trump incentivized nuclear proliferation. This week, Trump pledged to degrade American military readiness. No amount of faith in the man can change those sad geopolitical facts.

NOW WATCH: ‘Will Voters Give Trump Credit For Meeting With North Korea?’

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular

U.S.

Yes, Hillary Should Have Been Prosecuted

I know this is ancient history, but — I’m sorry — I just can’t let it go. When historians write the definitive, sordid histories of the 2016 election, the FBI, Hillary, emails, Russia, and Trump, there has to be a collection of chapters making the case that Hillary should have faced a jury ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Yes, There Was FBI Bias

There is much to admire in Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz’s highly anticipated report on the FBI’s Clinton-emails investigation. Horowitz’s 568-page analysis is comprehensive, fact-intensive, and cautious to a fault. It is also, nonetheless, an incomplete exercise — it omits half ... Read More
Sports

Let the World Have Soccer

The United States of America did not qualify for the World Cup this year. Good for us. Soccer is corrupt, hyper-regulated, impoverished by a socialist-style fondness for rationing, and organized to strangle human flourishing. It is so dependent on the whims of referees that is in effect a helpless captive of the ... Read More
Culture

Staying on the Path

Dear Reader (Including those of you who are no longer my personal lawyer), Almost 20 years ago, I wrote in this space that the movie A Simple Plan was one of the most conservative movies of the 1990s. In case you haven’t seen it, the plot is pretty straightforward, almost clichéd. It focuses on three men ... Read More
Immigration

Child Separation at the Border

If you want to read a thoughtful and constructive explanation and partial defense of the policies being implemented by the White House, you should read this piece by Rich Lowry. If you want to read a trollish and counter-productive screed fit for a comment section, read the White House’s official press ... Read More
Economy & Business

Asymmetrical Capitalism

I like to think of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker as my pen pal, but, in truth, he never writes back. It’s a lopsided relationship — asymmetrical, in a word. I have for many years argued that most people would be enthusiastic about capitalism if not for their interactions with a small number of ... Read More