The Corner

National Security & Defense

Trump’s Peace in Our Time Moment

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference after his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, June 12, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Trump is tweeting up a storm this morning on the topic of how he’s brought us peace in our time.

There are so many points one could dilate on. The “deal” we struck is less concrete and detailed than the previous deals we cut with North Korea. It contains fewer assurances and binding guarantees than the Iran Deal. Though Trump does have a point when he says, at least we’re not giving North Korea $150 billion. These tweets contradict Trump’s own statements about the work that still needs to be done. And so on.

But the interesting question for me is whether or not “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

On the most basic level this is pure balderdash. Literally no facts on the ground have changed from the day before the summit. The Norks have the same missiles, the same warheads, and the same capacity to do what they wish. There has not been a single relevant or meaningful de-escalation on the ground (or under it).

But politically, is it true that the nuclear threat has been eliminated? After all, France and Great Britain have nukes, and there’s no threat there because what matters is the nature and intent of the regime, not the technical capability. Nukes don’t nuke people, people nuke people and all that.

It seems pretty clear to me that at least for the next six months (which will conveniently get us through the midterms) the threat of confrontation with North Korea has lessened. But beyond that it seems to me that war is probably on net more likely now than it was before.

If you take it as a given that the North Koreans will not get rid of their nuclear program, at least not based on anything that happened in Singapore, then disappointment and anger is inevitable. Again, this time may be different. But the only new variable on the American side is Trump’s personal charisma, his unseemly praise of a murderer, and the whole spectacle of the summit. On the North Korean side, Kim Jong-un is a somewhat new figure, but there’s scant reason to believe he wants to take up Trump’s suggestion and trade his nukes for beachside condos on the North Korean coast. Kim left Singapore with many wins; America’s remain to be realized.

Comparisons to Munich fall apart in all sorts of ways, but there’s still some connective tissue between Chamberlain’s “Peace in Our Time” pronouncement and Trump’s the-threat-is-over tweets. The most obvious is that both men were wrong. Chamberlain didn’t buy “peace in our time,” and Trump has in no way eliminated the threat on the Korean peninsula. More relevant though: Munich ultimately made war more likely, not less. Why? Because by giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt in exchange for promises he never intended to honor, it made Hitler’s subsequent aggressions all the more clarifying. The West could feel like it had gone the last mile for diplomacy and that there were no options left when Hitler invaded Poland.

As Erik von Kuehnelt Leddihn, John O’Sullivan, Nick Baumann, and others have argued, there’s a better case than is commonly acknowledged in defense of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. Britain and France were not ready to intervene on behalf of Czechoslovakia. They needed to time to re-arm, etc. A similar case can be made here. America is war weary. The last thing the South Koreans want is war, and their government is full of peaceniks. Going the last mile for diplomacy makes some sense, even though I would have liked a very different kind of diplomatic overture.

What concerns me is that Trump has personalized all of this. He’s basing his peace-in-our-time tweets on his personal relationship with a rotund sociopath and egomaniac, and his gut instinct that a proven liar is acting in good faith. If — when — the North Koreans demonstrate their bad faith and determination to keep their nuclear program, it will be a personal embarrassment and humiliation of Trump himself. How will he react to that?

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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