I must admit that I find it extremely difficult to evaluate President Trump’s summit last week with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Was it simply nothing more than a dazzling show devoid of any real consequences, or was it an international relations breakthrough, resulting from Trump’s thinking “outside the box”?
We are all the products of the eras we were born in, and I, having been born toward the end of the Second World War, am the product of the post-war years, which at least in the West were based on a very specific set of liberal (not necessarily left-wing) values, principles and ideals.
These concern the importance of democratic principles both for the sake of preserving human rights and welfare, and in the attempt to attain and maintain world peace; a combination of a mixed economy, globalization and the welfare state; the upholding of morality – especially when it comes to truthfulness, reliability (including the concept of pacta sunt servanda – agreements must be kept), shying away from inflicting avoidable harm and suffering to others; and last but not least: basing policy on realism as opposed to wishful thinking and pipe dreams (such as the illusions of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his partners regarding the 1938 Munich Agreement leading to “peace in our time”).
Of course, not everyone in the West shared these values, principles and ideals, claiming that they were unrealistic and suffered from endless inner contradictions. Grosso modo, Donald Trump seems to belong to this group of skeptics. However, the question is whether he holds any sort of coherent alternative set of values, principles and ideals, or whether it is really all about the impossible combination of “the survival of the fittest” and “make America great again.”
The first question that comes to mind in regard to Trump’s North Korean initiative is whether it falls into the same category as the Munich Agreement, or whether it reflects realism in its most refined, even if cynical, form. In other words, since unlike Iran, North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, for the sake of peace and security trying to get it to disarm must be a goal that supersedes all others.
The argument against this claim is that Kim Jong-un has no intention of denuclearizing on the one hand, or alternatively starting to democratize his extremely brutal Stalinist dictatorship. What he wants is to have the economic sanctions lifted from his beleaguered state – which is also what Iran sought when it signed the 2015 nuclear deal framework with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.
There might or might not be a way to keep Iran denuclearized and to denuclearize North Korean without using force, but it is not clear why Trump believes that the agreement with Iran is a catastrophe and his alleged deal with Kim is a stroke of genius, unless the only criterion is to reject out of hand everything that president Barak Obama did during his eight years in office.
There are other disturbing things in regard to Trump’s recent actions and statements around the North Korean deal.
When asked about his total disregard for the abhorrent human rights situation in North Korea, he answers, “Bad things happen in other places as well.” No doubt. However, it is a question of degree and intensity. For example, how can Trump disregard the fact that not long ago Otto Warmbier, a healthy young American, was given a heavy prison sentence in Pyongyang for innocently removing and taking a propaganda poster from the wall in his hotel as a souvenir, and was returned to the US several months later in a vegetative state and dying. In how many “places” in the world could that happen, even though certainly “bad things” occasionally happen to detainees or prisoners accused of terrorism, even in Israel (the difference being, of course, that in Israel swiping a poster is not considered terrorism)?
Trump claims that Kim Jong-un “wants the best for his people.” So does the Hamas in the case of the Gazans. Certainly Trump understands that all that Kim Jong-un wants is for his family’s rule to survive, and to live “the good life” – as does, incidentally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Which brings us back to the question whether the fact that North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and has a leader who is believed to be mad enough to use them, is good enough a reason to offer him everything he wants, including the US unilaterally reneging from long-established security agreements it has with South Korea and perhaps even those with Japan.
There is another problem. Nobody, except perhaps Trump himself, believes that Kim Jong-un can be trusted. However, in the current state of affairs, can the US be trusted? Any state, the US included, can have second thoughts about international agreements and treaties it has signed, but there are ways of changing such agreements and treaties. Yet the US has unilaterally and unceremoniously withdrawn from a whole host of agreements – with Iran (the nuclear agreement), with the Pacific nations (the trade pact), with most members of the UN (the climate agreement), with the members of the World Trade Organization (on customs duties).
One may argue that Trump is unlikely to renege from agreements he himself has signed, and so far his record on at least trying to fulfill his election campaign promises hasn’t been bad. For the time being we in Israel have been on the receiving end. The US Embassy is being moved to Jerusalem and there is an exceptionally friendly American diplomatic team in the UN. But how many states are currently in Israel’s position? Not even the partners of the US in the G-7; they currently have smoke coming out of their ears.
Having said all of this, it cannot be excluded that Trump’s way might actually work. We are 73 years after the end of the Second World War, and the world is a very different place: much more right-wing, cynical, xenophobic and “bugger-thy-neighbor” minded. Who knows, perhaps its dictators have also changed, and Kim Jong-un will behave himself; perhaps Iran will decide to follow suit, truck directly with Trump, and agree to all of Binyamin Netanyahu’s conditions for a new nuclear agreement (even though the 2015 agreement isn’t dead – not yet); and perhaps the western powers outside the US will realize that it is they who are in the role of Chamberlain – not Trump.