The history of U.S. foreign policy is littered with unsuccessful presidential summits, even when they have been preceded by months of careful preparation and infused by a coherent strategy and clear objectives set by a well-informed and experienced president. Ironically, the upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands a decent chance of success, even though the administration has flouted all the traditional rules of good summit planning.
As Trump himself put it in a private meeting this week, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post, “It’s an interesting journey. It’s called the land of the unknown — who knows? We’ll maybe make a deal. Maybe not."
With two mercurial leaders, there’s always a risk that even a getting-to-know-you meeting might bomb. And we need to distinguish between the staged event and the more difficult process of reaching follow-on agreements. Even so, Singapore is likely to sing and here’s why:
Trump craves a good meeting. We’ve never had a president whose vanity, ego and need for acclamation have played such a huge role in what he says and does. And nowhere is that clearer than in Trump’s desire for a success with North Korea. As early as 1999, Trump opined that he’d “negotiate like crazy” with North Korea if he were president.
He has also trumpeted his own negotiating skills even as he has blasted his predecessors for being “played like a fiddle” by North Korea. Trump’s obsession with adulation, his need to trump his predecessors and secure a place in the history books, including a Nobel, is clearly driving his willingness to risk an early meeting with Kim.
And Kim wants one, too. Like the late American comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the North Korean dictator believes he and his country get no respect. Kim has already burnished his legitimacy and prestige by getting a summit that treats him as an equal with Trump and legitimizes North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, while Washington received nothing upfront in return.
But a picture is worth a thousand words, and Kim wants lots of pictures beamed around the world and in North Korea showing him going handshake-to-handshake with Trump. At this point, these intangible rewards and concrete demonstrations that the United States has ended its “hostile policy” toward North Korea are probably more important to Kim than reaping immediate economic and diplomatic concessions.
Kim also wants to continue chipping away at the rapidly crumbling architecture of international sanctions. A summit that creates a “spirit of Singapore” serves these purposes, while drawing closer to America helps him increase North Korea's independence from China.
Trump has lowered expectations. For years, U.S. policy toward North Korea has clung to the utterly fantastical objective of getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons quickly without much in return. Trump seems prepared to back away from this goal and to accept that North Korea’s denuclearization will take time and should proceed in phases. He has even stopped chanting the administration’s mantra of maximum pressure.
The administration’s formal position remains comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. But this appears to be relegated to a longer-term goal.
South Korea and China cheerleading for success. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is heavily invested in a successful summit and détente and denuclearization with North Korea. His conciliatory policy toward Pyongyang and the promise of a transformational change in North Korea and North-South relations are wildly popular among the South Koreans. He also wants to avoid having to choose between solidarity with the United States and seeing his peace policy derailed if the summit fails.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stands to benefit from a successful summit that would not only reduce the risk of instability and war on the Korean Peninsula but could also, if it ultimately leads to peace and security, weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance and precipitate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. Lastly, the Chinese don’t like sanctions in general and North Korean sanctions in particular. Beijing would welcome the further relaxation of sanctions and North Korea’s diplomatic isolation.
What defines success. A successful summit is less important than what comes after. A one-off meeting would be an embarrassment and might well spark escalating tensions, even war. The real operational goal here isn’t the fantasy of zero nukes, but ending the prospect of war on the Korean Peninsula. This summit needs to produce a framework and a mandate for a negotiating process to achieve a comprehensive peace and security regime, including reciprocal and synchronous steps between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization and security guarantees. A deepening North-South dialogue and a commitment by the signatories to the 1953 Armistice Agreement (China, America and North Korea) to replace it with a peace treaty will help anchor that process.
What has buoyed our hopes in the land of failed summitry is that both sides seem to have reduced their expectations. Let’s hope — at least for now — that they stick to that script.