Janice Gross Stein is founding director, Munk School of Global Affairs.
The world is a safer place because Donald Trump cancelled his summit meeting with Kim Jong-un.
That argument seems to fly in the face of common sense. Surely we would all be better off if these two men could sit down and reason together, if they could talk themselves back from the nuclear brink.
The big “if” here is whether they could have reasoned their way to even a fig-leaf framework agreement that allows them each enough space to back off and back down. That was very doubtful because this summit meeting was so rushed and unplanned. This is not how summits generally work.
Normally, diplomats do months of meticulous work to prepare for a summit of this importance. They know roughly what to expect from the other side and, at times, are even able to draft the final communiqué and highlight areas of disagreement for the attention of top officials. Political leaders eat, drink and chat while their senior officials scramble to resolve the remaining areas of disagreement. That’s not what was about to happen in Singapore.
The President impetuously agreed to a summit meeting, with little if any consultation with experienced diplomats. That’s his style. That left officials scrambling to pick up the pieces. But what officials? Rex Tillerson, who was still secretary of state at the time, had refused to make any senior appointments because he had launched an organizational review of the State Department and was waiting for the results. To make matters worse, almost all the officials who were experts on either North or South Korea had left in the wake of the chaos created by a Trump presidency and a secretary of state who showed nothing but disdain for diplomats. For a summit with such high stakes, there were no officials to pick up the pieces and do the hard work.
Who was “running the file?” Was it Mike Pompeo, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency? The CIA undoubtedly had sources on Mr. Kim’s thinking, but its leaders are not experienced diplomats, nor are they prepared to organize high-level summits. That’s not their job. Their job is to provide the best intelligence that they could get their hands on, and that’s what Mr. Pompeo did.
Mr. Tillerson’s departure and Mr. Pompeo becoming Secretary of State did not close the large gap in diplomatic expertise as the administration rushed to get ready for the summit. Mr. Pompeo travelled to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-un and deepen his understanding of what he wanted, but one meeting, no matter how private and how intense, cannot lay the groundwork for this kind of summit. Even the desperate attempts by President Moon Jae-in of South Korea could not bridge the void. There is no getting around it. The United States – and Mr. Kim – were going to this summit unprepared.
That only added to the hazard of an already risky option. The summit promised big gains if it succeeded, but even bigger losses if it failed. The gains were obvious – the crisis in the Korean peninsula would begin to de-escalate and North Korea’s nuclear weapons would gradually be eliminated. But how likely was that? Not very. It would clearly not be enough for Mr. Trump to bring North Korean weapons under control; he showed that when he tore up an agreement that brought Iran’s nuclear program – Iran has no nuclear weapons – under control for 15 years. So the bar for success was very high. Therefore, Mr. Kim would have had to agree to eliminate his weapons over time. Not likely.
Now let’s consider the consequences of failure. An erratic and undisciplined President – Mr. Trump, not Mr. Kim – travels to Singapore. Expectations are raised, coverage goes around the clock and whispers about a Nobel Peace Prize become talk. Then the summit fails because of mismatched expectations. Mr. Kim goes home to his nuclear weapons and Mr. Trump goes home enraged and humiliated. A storm of tweets ratchets up tensions around the world. Neither leader has an obvious way back.
If there is a strong probability that a high-stakes summit will fail – and there are no higher stakes than nuclear weapons – far better not to have the meeting at all. Far better to let experienced officials try to manage the risk. Far better to pull in the most experienced people left in the State Department, let them do their work and only proceed to a summit if there is a reasonable chance of a good outcome.
Cancelling the summit meeting is the first good decision that Mr. Trump has made in a very long while.