As of this writing, the much-anticipated summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been cancelled. Or postponed. Or, based on what the president is now saying, it might still happen as scheduled.
Accounts of why Trump pulled the plug on the summit are confusing and contradictory: Some say it was due to North Korea’s hot rhetoric, including calling the vice president a “political dummy”; others say it had more to do with North Korean officials’ failure to engage ahead of the scheduled June 12 meeting. It might also have due to the president’s dawning realization that Pyongyang was not going to meet his demand for comprehensive de-nuclearization, a demand that may or may not have been made, given the mixed signals Trump and his harder-line advisers were sending.
The situation now is just as murky: The U.S. is still, maybe, threatening with complete annihilation the country with which it wishes to reach a historic diplomatic agreement. And South Korea, whose president Trump just hosted at the White House and whose cooperation on any summitry would be crucial, might or might not have been forewarned. To sum up the Trumpian attitude toward all this—whatever. We’ll see what happens.
We write from the rather humbling vantage point of former policy advisers who’ve had their share of failed presidential summits. Across several administrations, we participated in a few successful leader-to-leader meetings, but been part of – and played our part in – many more botched ones: between Israelis and Palestinians (most notably at Camp David in July 2000) and, in various incarnations, between Israelis and Syrians. No two summits are alike, and the one President Trump appears, for now, to have scotched was in a class all its own. Still, a few lessons from this checkered track record – about what is required to maximize chances of success, and what to do in case of failure – bear keeping in mind.
As to the differences: The U.S. president’s role in Mideast summitry typically has been as mediator, not protagonist. The U.S. was interested and invested in the meetings’ outcomes but not truly at their mercy. From an American perspective, the day after an abortive presidential summit looked pretty much like the day before. Not so in the case of the putative Trump/Kim meeting, where the U.S. was to be a direct participant, whose goal should be to prevent North Korea threatening it with a nuclear-tipped missile, and which conceivably could put the two nations on the path to a peace treaty, or to war, depending on the outcome.
Higher stakes mean a greater imperative to avoid failure, which is where experience gained from mostly unsuccessful Middle East summitry might be of some relevance.
First lesson: The president’s advisers ought to have ensured that they were roughly on the same page. That may seem a self-evident proposition, but it’s one surprisingly often honored in the breach. Had one asked the half-dozen members of the U.S. team who, in 2000, accompanied Bill Clinton to Camp David, to describe the contours of an anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, they would have offered more than half a dozen answers. That made it difficult for the U.S. to thoroughly prepare for the summit or adhere to a consistent view once there, and contributed to the encounter’s bumper-car quality as well as to the ability of Israelis and Palestinians (the former far more expertly than the latter) to pull us in their preferred direction.
For Trump’s team, whose lingua franca often is cacophony, speaking in one voice might seem an impossibly tall order. In this case, confusion was on public display even before the now non-summit was to take place, from national security adviser John Bolton’s ill-advised – albeit evidently premeditated – comparison to the Libyan model (by which he seemed to mean the illusory prospect of North Korea’s complete and upfront denuclearization); to President Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s subsequent confusing and no more reassuring attempt at clarification (in which they implicitly threatened North Korea’s destruction if no deal were reached); to Trump’s periodic and offhand suggestions of a more incremental and realistic approach; to his seeming desperation to hold such a meeting with the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize at the end of the rainbow. The public lack of harmony and intermittent provocative utterances clearly had an effect on the North Koreans, who chose to answer in kind. One potential benefit of postponing the meeting would be for the administration to use the time to better define, align and discipline its views and messaging.
A second lesson: Before holding a summit, the parties ought to share a minimal understanding of what it is designed to achieve. That doesn’t mean agreeing on the substance of a possible accord, but on its basic nature -- a final resolution; an interim step; a broad set of principles; or, more modestly, the launch of a negotiating process. When Arabs and Israelis came to Madrid in 1991, they did so under the premise that theirs in fact was that humbler objective: to launch a process of negotiation not consummate a deal. Eight years later, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat met in Camp David, Barak was hoping to force through a comprehensive agreement, while Arafat’s goal was to keep the talks going and escape blame. Madrid was relatively successful. Camp David a failure. The run up to Trump’s canceled Singapore summit seems a lot more like Camp David—the unusually public and contentious pre-summit back and forth about what was to be achieved was both unusual and symptomatic of a misalignment of American and North Korean expectations and profoundly different narratives.
Which brings us to a third lesson: Keep those expectations in check. North Korea’s immediate agreement to implement a detailed, verifiable denuclearization plan, destroy its existing nuclear material, freeze all production of fissionable material and give up its long range missiles would be optimal. It’s also almost entirely fanciful. There’s nothing wrong in principle in aiming high, but failure often lies at the other end, and a failed high-level summit (or failed high-level non-summit) is no trivial matter.
Again, think Camp David: With the U.S. and Israel focused on achieving what, in retrospect, was an illusory comprehensive settlement, the end of the summit also meant the end of serious peace efforts, at least for a while. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, that meant a deadly and disastrous Palestinian uprising and violent Israeli response, which was bad enough. In the U.S./North Korean case, it could mean reverting back to nuclear brinkmanship, which would be far worse.
There are many potential outcomes for a U.S.-North Korean summit that, while falling short of a comprehensive deal, nonetheless would have been, and still would be, worth pursuing. The U.S. and North Korea could agree on broad principles, including an eventual end state of full de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and normalization of U.S./North Korean and intra-Korean relations. North Korea could commit to continue its freeze on nuclear and missile tests and agree to initial verification measures. The U.S could pledge to adjust the timing and scope of its joint military exercises with South Korea to quell Pyongyang’s fears. And both could agree on a sequence of expert-level talks to iron out details. That’s not everything the U.S. would wish for, but nor would it be inconsequential.
The corollary to the third lesson is the fourth: Avoid a do-or-die mentality of the kind Barak insisted on in 2000 when negotiating with Palestinians at Camp David, and persuaded us to carry out when President Clinton met with then-President Hafez Assad of Syria earlier that year. The Israeli prime minister swiftly quashed any talk of a series of meetings, arguing that only under the pressure of a decisive encounter would his Arab counterparts take the plunge. He got his way, but his way didn’t get him – or us – what he wanted. Even the prospect of failure, of a crisis in their relations with Washington, of forfeiting whatever economic or other incentives would accompany a deal proved insufficient to get either Arafat or Assad to agree to less than they were determined to achieve. Kim may still be a mystery, but the prospect of a failed summit or of not having a summit at all almost certainly won’t get him to give up overnight all his regime built over decades. If and when it happens, any Trump-Kim summit should be seen as the first of several meetings to come. Putting too much pressure on any one meeting is a recipe for failure.
The corollary to the corollary is to have a realistic Plan B in the event no summit takes place or one ultimately does but ends in a crisis, with no prospect for continued talks. We didn’t have a Plan B at Camp David, which tells us something about whether it was wise to go to the summit under those circumstances in the first place. That’s the fifth lesson: Trump needs a fallback and it certainly oughtn’t be war. Rather, it should be something less glorious, but more effective: containment, deterrence, diplomacy and sanctions.
Sixth and final lesson: Don’t shut other parties out. In negotiating with Syrians and Palestinians, we did and shouldn’t have. Instead of mobilizing key Arab states to support its efforts, the U.S. excluded them from our planning, largely because of Israel’s worry about leaks and pressure. Midway through Camp David, when we needed them, their lack of information made it hard for them to help; their lack of involvement made them unwilling to try. In this instance, keeping South Korea, Japan and China involved makes sense. If, as seems the case and as Seoul’s statements in the aftermath of the issuance of Trump’s odd letter suggests, South Korea was not consulted or informed, that would be an example of what not to do. And if steps were not taken to ensure China was on board, it’s hard to see how the administration’s policy of maximum pressure can succeed.
From the tone of his half-plaintive, half-accusatory letter, Trump still strongly wishes to have a summit, which, considering the alternative, is a good thing. He also tends to believe he has little to learn from the experience of others, particularly when he regards that experience as littered with flops. He already violated at least one piece of orthodoxy. Insulting and provocative tweets of the sort the president regularly was lobbing at Kim is not what a negotiating textbook would counsel. That he got away with it, at least for a time, and that North Korea made several gestures ever since (including the release of three American prisoners) is unlikely to make him doubt his convictions or trust any others’. His unpredictability – and predictable heterodoxy – might allow him to bend certain rules and challenge certain orthodoxies.
Fair enough. Still, there are lessons from the past, and this week’s debacle is an indication that some of those might have been worth heeding. It is premature to declare diplomacy with North Korea over, even though risks of it being derailed have obviously risen. If there is going to be a second act, Trump at least has gained some time to get it right.