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:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2018
Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
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.