The on-again-off-again status of the bilateral nuclear summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un has toggled, for the moment, back to “off.” In an alternatingly deferential and threatening letter, Trump has just announced his cancellation of the meeting, “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed by your most recent statement.”
The letter clearly springs from, or at least reflects the deep influence of, Trump’s own mind. Almost the entirety of Trump’s very short list of favorite words is represented: “tremendous,” “massive,” “powerful,” “wonderful,” “beautiful,” “wealth,” and “sad.”
Trump is also the author of the strategy itself, as it were. The president was obviously manipulated by other actors into a series of impulsive decisions that rewarded his momentary ego needs. As Korea specialist Robert Kelly explained, Trump was pushed into accepting a summit — a longtime North Korean objective — by South Korea, which had begun to doubt Trump’s commitment to its defense. South Korean president Moon Jae-in shrewdly played upon Trump’s narcissism by floating the prospect he might win a Nobel Prize. Soon Trump was minting commemorative coins to celebrate the occasion, and his supporters were chanting “No-bel! No-bel!”
Many foreign-policy analysts endorse the idea of bilateral talks between the leaders of North Korea and the United States. The problem is this particular leader of the United States, and his belief that seat-of-the-pants temperamental spontaneity is the best approach to the problem of avoiding nuclear war.
The positive gloss on this approach is that Trump is deliberately using unpredictability to his advantage. “Kim Jong-un’s entire lineage is having people think he might be crazy. Trump’s like: ‘You’re crazy? How about this,” a source tells Axios. David Brooks suggested, “Donald Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.”
And yet the closer examination of Trump’s method is less encouraging. He has, characteristically, refused to learn anything about the subject he was putatively negotiating. Trump “has been almost singularly focused on the pageantry of the summit — including the suspenseful roll-out of details,” reported the Associated Press. “He has not been deeply engaged in briefing materials on North Korea’s nuclear program, said three people with knowledge of the White House efforts.” There is a real “Madman Theory” of nuclear deterrence, but there isn’t really a “Petulant Adolescent Theory.”
Fortunately, the commemorative coins do not list a date for the summit any more specific than “2018,” so there’s still plenty of time for it to be held without their going to waste. If it fails, the coins might turn up in the hands of some impoverished children in the developing world, like those pre-printed championship T-shirts for losing teams.