During his term of office, US president Barack Obama was roundly slammed by his critics for pushing away traditional allies in favor of new alliances. How could he block out friends like Israel and Saudi Arabia in favor of the radical regime in Iran, they shouted, even if it was aimed at reaching a deal to curb its nuclear ambitions and ultimately make the world safer?
Life is full of irony, as this week we’ve seen Obama’s successor, US President Donald Trump, take more or less the same tack.
Over the weekend, he went on the attack at a Group of Seven summit in Canada in an escalating clash over trade between Washington and some of its closest global partners. He alienated NATO allies, the European Union and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and backed out of a joint communique that attempted to reach a fragile consensus on the trade issue.
Leaving America’s traditional alliances frayed, Trump left the summit early to fly to Singapore ahead of Tuesday’s history-in-the-making summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, one of America’s bitterest foes.
And history-making it was. In a stark contrast to the now-famous weekend G7 shot of the US president petulantly staring up at a gaggle of stern-faced world leaders, Trump and the North Korean dictator shook hands with big smiles, while disproving the naysayers who, based upon the summit-on/summit-off seesaw of the past couple weeks, expected something outrageous, dangerous or embarrassing to take place – if the summit went through at all.
After all, Trump boasted that he would be able to ascertain Kim’s motives and sincerity within the first minute of meeting him. Kim must have impressed Trump, because in a substantial move that would have been unthinkable a year ago, the two leaders signed a joint statement pledging to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula while Washington stated its commitment to provide security guarantees for its longtime enemy.
Of course, a memorandum of understanding is a long way from achieving a peace agreement. But just the fact that it took place is a huge achievement for the Trump administration. In a press conference after the summit, Trump said he expected the denuclearization process to start “very, very quickly,” and announced that the North was destroying a major engine-testing site it used for missiles. At the same time, Trump presented a cautious approach, maintaining that international sanctions on Pyongyang would stay in place for now.
One worrisome aspect of the summit and Trump’s remarks after, is his approach to long-standing American allies. Although rapprochement between the US and North Korea bodes well for world security, Trump stated that joint military exercises with South Korea would be halted, citing a monetary reason for the halt. South Korea’s presidential office said on Tuesday that it needs to seek clarity of US intentions, but it certainly raises cause for concern over the risks of engaging with North Korea.
As The Jerusalem Post’s Seth J. Frantzman wrote on Monday, the summit gives Kim and North Korea legitimacy. “Whether that works or just whets their appetite for more shenanigans on the Korean Peninsula is unclear.”
In his statements, Trump refrained from saying whether he brought up North Korea’s abysmal human rights record during his meeting with Kim. However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thanked the US president for “raising the abduction issue,” referring to Japan’s demand that Pyongyang release any remaining Japanese people it abducted to train its spies.
Omissions or looking the other way aside, Trump has certainly confounded his detractors by pulling off the summit and seemingly bringing rogue-state North Korea a baby step into the league of civilized nations. Whether the success is short-lived or not depends on if tangible progress can now be achieved toward Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament.
Trump’s unconventional diplomatic style and gruff, off-the-cuff negotiating approach has been derided extensively. We don’t know if his G7 showdown will backfire in his face, but for at least a short while, he can bask in some well-deserved glory at his initial achievement with North Korea. Whether the final agreement will be better than Obama’s deal with Iran will be up to history to determine.