More seriously, President Trump regularly highlighted his summits, which opened a relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for the first time in seventy‐two years. That was a genuine accomplishment, but no denuclearization agreement resulted. That is hardly surprising.
Unfortunately, the president received almost no political support for his efforts. Democrats, who had been hyperventilating about the impending nuclear war, flipped and denounced him for selling out to Kim. Few had any interest in doing what was right, encouraging the president to make peace. Democrats simply sought to score political points, irrespective of the cost to America.
Republicans were even worse. Most appeared to be ideologically committed to endless war—everywhere. Many were more interested in following Saudi and Israeli demands regarding Iran than in advancing American interests. GOP legislators were horrified by proposals to leave Afghanistan even after nearly two decades of nation‐building. Led by the war‐happy John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republicans pushed to intervene in the tragic Syrian civil war, which was irrelevant to American national interests. This informal war lobby’s only disappointment with Libya was that the United States stopped being involved in the ongoing civil war.
As for North Korea, Republican legislators, analysts, and pundits reacted with near unanimity in horror to the president’s diplomatic initiative. Graham was honest and openly welcomed the prospect of conflict. He dismissed concerns over nuclear war, since it would be “over there” rather than “over here.” If a few million South Koreans died, it apparently would not have concerned him.
Indeed, the GOP leadership—politicians and activists—has degenerated dramatically in recent years. The party has been captured by reflexive hawks without historical knowledge or intellectual curiosity, who want America to rule the world and believe that Washington can simply threaten its way to control. The American people are lucky that the Iraq debacle is the worst failure in the last twenty years. A nuclear war with North Korea could have yielded millions of casualties across several nations, including America.
The bigger problem was the president himself, of course. He didn’t take the process of diplomacy seriously. He could hold a summit. But he couldn’t make a complex agreement. And no personal connection, however genuine—most international relationships are politically convenient, not personally meaningful—can overcome radically different conceptions of national interest.
Kim Jong‐un would have been a fool to agree to denuclearization under any circumstance, but especially in the way the president wanted which would have been instantly and completely. The latter seemed to expect a handshake and hug, followed by a drive to a warehouse holding the North Korean arsenal, to be loaded onto Air Force One. After which the two governments would live happily ever after.
Apparently it never occurred to Trump that filling his administration with warhawks, such as John Bolton, who had advocated bombing the North, might further discourage Kim from abandoning his costly deterrence for nothing other than a presidential promise to be nice. And that trusting Trump would be nuts after Washington dropped the Iran Deal with Tehran, reinstated sanctions, and demanded that Tehran surrender its independent foreign policy. Pyongyang could easily suffer the same fate. Then, having abandoned its weapons, Pyongyang would be essentially helpless.
If he is reelected, the president could restart the process. But that would require him to take a walk on the practical side. First, he would need staffers who backed his policies and put them into operation. He could “promote” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to be his Iran war chief—a fitting choice if the administration’s aggressive confrontational tactics continue—and choose someone with a genuine interest in diplomacy and peaceful outcomes as his new secretary of state.
Second, the president should act as the dealmaker he claims to be and indicate his willingness to conclude agreements big and small so long as they reduce tensions, moderate threats, or reduce armaments. The ultimate objective would remain denuclearization, but he would seek to achieve that by meeting any number of other intermediate goals.