As a candidate, Donald Trump expressed support for reinstating military torture, dropping bombs on the wives and children of enemy combatants, and mass murdering Muslim prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. As president, he has praised police brutality, closed America’s border to Syrian refugees, defended white supremacists, demonized Central American immigrants, threatened thermonuclear war over Twitter, and endorsed extrajudicial assassinations of suspected drug users as a public health policy.
And yet, Trump’s aides believe he just might win a Nobel Peace Prize. And that notion is a tad less crazy than it sounds.
You may have trouble picturing Donald Trump as a world-historic peacemaker. But Donald Trump doesn’t. As the president contemplates his upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un, he feels confident that his unique deal-making skills will allow him to resolve the tensions that have kept the Korean peninsula in a cold war for 65 years — and led Pyongyang to cling to a nuclear arsenal at immense economic and diplomatic cost. As Axios reports:
President Trump views the North Korean crisis as his “great man” of history moment.
The big picture: He came into office thinking he could be the historic deal maker to bring peace to the Middle East. He’s stopped talking about that. There’s very little point. The peace deal looks dead and cremated. But Trump wants to sign his name even larger into the history books, and he views North Korea as his moment.
Sources close to him say he genuinely believes he — and he alone — can overcome the seemingly intractable disaster on the Korean Peninsula.
A source who has discussed North Korea with Trump: “He thinks, ‘Just get me in the room with the guy [Kim Jong-un] and I’ll figure it out.’”
On Thursday, Trump’s ambition began to look a bit more plausible. Speaking ahead of his own summit with Kim next week, South Korean president Moon Jae-in announced that North Korea had expressed “a will for a complete denuclearization” of the peninsula — and would not demand the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from South Korea in exchange.
“They have not attached any conditions that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea,” Moon told reporters. “All they are expressing is the end of hostile policies against North Korea, followed by a guarantee of security.” But one should probably treat this promise with at least as much skepticism as Donald Trump’s “great man” theory of (his own role in) history. Historically, Pyongyang has defined “complete denuclearization” as an agreement in which it forfeits its nuclear ambitions in exchange for the dismantlement of America’s security infrastructure in the region. Which is to say: The withdrawal of the 63,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, a cessation of joint military exercises between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, and an end to America’s nuclear security umbrella over the South.
It’s possible that Kim has decided he could live with a few American troops in the South, so long as the U.S. pares back all other features of its security policy in East Asia. But there is little chance that all Kim desires is “an end of hostile policies towards North Korea,” as Washington would define them. And even if Kim were inclined to take a radically softer stance than his father and grandfather, China would be sure to stiffen his spine. As Anish Goel explains for NBC News, forcing the U.S. to pare back its security presence in East Asia is as much of a foreign policy priority for Beijing as it is for Pyongyang. And Kim’s historic visit with Xi Jinping last month confirmed that China will have an invisible seat at Trump and Kim’s negotiating table.
Nevertheless, there is reason to wonder if Trump might actually be right — that he alone can bring peace to the Korean peninsula.
Granted, he knows virtually nothing about the region or its history, and tacitly confessed this week that he only recently learned that the Korean War had never technically ended. And sure, his famous “deal-making” abilities might be a wholly fictional marketing ploy; his steadfast refusal to educate himself on geopolitics, and irritable personality might have soured his diplomatic relationship with a wide variety of U.S. allies; his word might be less trustworthy than just about any major leader’s in world history; and he may very well be cognitively incapable of imagining the world from another person’s perspective, or feeling anything resembling human empathy.
But when it comes to forging a peace deal with North Korea, Trump’s aversion to sweating the details of geopolitics could be an asset. And his disagreeable (and/or sociopathic) personality could prove less detrimental to negotiations than his egotism and susceptibility to flattery are beneficial to them. In fact, those latter qualities are the very reason that peace talks between Trump and Kim are taking place at all: When the president was presented with North Korea’s routine offer of direct talks, he interpreted it as an unprecedented gesture of conciliation inspired by his exceptional leadership — and then pounced on the opportunity to generate a flattering headline, before his advisers could brief him on the potential downsides of such a summit.
This move was hardly uncharacteristic. Last year, when Saudi Arabia offered Trump the opportunity to claim that he had convinced America’s Gulf State allies to get tough on terrorism — by blockading Qatar — the president did not worry about whether this development actually advanced U.S. security interests in the region before he declared mission accomplished. And Trump displayed a similar propensity for not letting bad policy be the enemy of good (short-term) PR in his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs.
Thus, it isn’t hard to imagine Trump leaping at the opportunity to announce that he has reached a historic denuclearization deal with North Korea — even if such an agreement includes concessions on America’s security role in the region that all previous presidents have recoiled from. If Axios’s report is correct, Trump has begun to see securing such a peace deal as a means of validating his megalomaniacal self-conception; at this point, accepting that “he alone” can’t fix the crisis would ostensibly deal his ego a painful blow.
More critically, unlike any previous U.S. president, Trump can plausibly brand a withdrawal of the U.S. military from East Asia as a foreign policy “win” in its own right. After all, the mogul has repeatedly complained about the fiscal costs of maintaining American security guarantees, while calling on U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden of their own defense. And while his administration’s actual foreign policy has been anything but noninterventionist, his affinity for isolationist rhetoric and gestures has not gone away. Just a few weeks ago, the man was calling on his generals to withdraw all U.S. troops and humanitarian aid from Syria.
All of which is to say: If Kim offers Trump a chance to announce that he has forged a genuinely historic deal to end the Korean War, denuclearize North Korea — and bring American troops and treasure home from the region — could anyone be confident that he’d turn down such an opportunity?