The Credit Trump Deserves
Republicans believe Donald Trump, by helping to bring North and South Korea to the negotiating table, has already earned his Nobel Peace Prize. Democrats are largely downplaying the détente, holding back fulsome praise in the absence of a bona fide deal.
Five years ago, the roles were reversed, with Democrats cheering Barack Obama’s breakthrough phone conversation with newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Republicans warning about getting snookered. When a detailed agreement designed to prevent Iran from manufacturing a nuclear weapon was forged in 2015, Democrats felt validated while Republicans remained unimpressed with the specifics.
The partisan whiplash can be easily dismissed as another case of blind tribal loyalty. But it’s an opportunity for both camps to take stock of their foreign policy principles, as well as their political calculations.
The conservative mantra on foreign policy has long been “peace through strength.” And by “strength,” conservatives have meant a heavily funded military as much as a steely “Dirty Harry” persona from the commander-in-chief. For example, it’s long been part of the Republican narrative than the 1979-80 Iranian hostage crisis was resolved not by Jimmy Carter’s painstaking negotiations, but by Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. In the words of 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, the Iranians simply “looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes, and in two minutes, they released the hostages.”
The liberal approach to foreign policy is rooted in the notion that peace is only possible when America extends an olive branch and breaks down barriers to communication. One of the reasons why Obama outflanked Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008 is because he dared to suggest he would “meet separately, without precondition … with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea” in his first year as president. (Obama didn’t end up doing exactly that, though he did visit Cuba in his eighth year after negotiating a normalization of relations.)
So have the Korean developments bolstered the conservative or the liberal view? Trick question: It’s both.
The principle of “peace through strength” is being put into practice, but by Kim Jong Un, not Donald Trump. Kim pivoted toward diplomacy in 2018 only after ordering eight tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in 2017, including one that can reach the United States. Fortified by this newly achieved nuclear know-how, Kim goes to the negotiating table with the most leverage North Korea has ever held.
Trump and his conservative allies may want you the believe his August 2017 threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is what spooked Kim to the table, but as Slate’s Fred Kaplan chronicled, North Korea only raised the ante after that moment, executing four more weapons tests. Nor can Trump’s persona be credited with possessing any unique power to prompt North Korea to release American detainees, as the same happened under Obama.
The utterance of Trump that likely most intrigued Kim was not a threat, but a potential concession: the possibility of removing American troops from South Korea. Trump complained throughout the 2016 campaign (inaccurately) about the cost of maintaining a military presence in South Korea, sending a strong signal to Kim that he could be a very agreeable negotiating partner.
Since the campaign, Trump has continued to show his eagerness to end the decades-old policy of providing a military check on North Korea. This past February, he privately proposed withdrawing those troops unilaterally, only to be reined in by Chief of Staff John Kelly. The following month, shortly after plans were announced for a Trump-Kim summit, he publicly threatened withdrawal if South Korea didn’t make trade concessions. And in recent days we learned Trump has ordered the Pentagon to prepare withdrawal options.
In April, North Korea said it would not demand a withdrawal of American troops, and maybe Kim won’t bring up the subject at the summit. But he has to recognize that American presidents who desperately want to get out of his neighborhood don’t come along all that often, so now is the moment to seize.
Moreover, Trump did something that conservatives used to disparage: agree to meet an adversary without significant preconditions. In fact, Trump backed down from a previous insistence on preconditions, communicated only days before plans for a summit were announced. If you want to credit Trump for greasing a potential deal, don’t credit his bluster. Credit his willingness to make concessions.
Should Democrats be more willing to give Trump that credit? It’s not unreasonable to display some reticence. After all, Kim has not given up anything yet, let alone put anything in writing. And Trump may well be making a series of classic negotiating errors, being overeager for a deal and giving away too much in advance. But presuming Trump is making those errors and rooting for him to fail does not serve the liberal cause.
First, if Trump succeeds, he will validate the liberal belief in conciliation over confrontation. Granted, if Trump simultaneously and paradoxically dismantles the Iran nuclear deal – which, according to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, Iran is honoring – it will be harder to for liberals to praise Trump on this score. (And it might behoove Trump and other conservatives to get over their hatred of anything associated with Obama, and judge the existing Iran deal and the theoretical North Korea deal using similar criteria.) But even if becomes necessary for Democrats to hammer Trump for reckless inconsistency, a deal with North Korea would be a positive in its own right, and how it came to be would be worth understanding and celebrating.
Second, Democrats need not fear that Trump will be politically buoyed by a foreign policy accomplishment. Such achievements rarely produce domestic political dividends, as American voters typically care far more about their pocketbooks than peace treaties. The Camp David Accords did nothing for Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign, nor were Obama’s approval numbers goosed by the Iran deal. (Even battlefield victories are no guarantee of electoral success, as George H. W. Bush was tossed out of office following the Gulf War.) If Trump scores a political point abroad, let him have it, knowing there will be plenty of other targets of opportunity down the road.
If an agreement is struck with Kim, it is safe to assume Trump will trumpet it as the greatest deal of all time, certainly better than the “stupidest deal of all time,” which is how he refers to the Iran pact. He will say this regardless of the deal’s specifics, including how much nuclear capability Kim retains.
Democrats need not feel compelled to choose between deals. They can simply praise both presidents for recognizing the necessity of diplomacy with our adversaries to end the threat of nuclear war. In other words, even if Republicans refuse to acknowledge the parallels in Trump’s and Obama’s diplomatic overtures, Democrats still can.
Trump’s desire for a North Korean deal may be motivated more by narcissism than altruism, and conservatives may be chanting “No-BEL, No-BEL” just to troll the left. But if Trump helps resolve a long-standing, festering source of global anxiety, both Republicans and Democrats should accept not just that Trump helped do it, but that he did it with diplomacy.