As I write, Donald Trump is enjoying something of a triumph at the US–North Korea summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. It looks as if he has obtained the agreement of the Hermit Kingdom to complete de-nuclearisation in return for quite modest American concessions. There are qualifications, of course, and the media report this success through gritted teeth, adding the kind of “warnings” of Pyongyang perfidy that used to be the currency of despised hard-liners. But if President Obama had achieved the same kind of breakthrough the world would be cheering him and declaring that, see, he really did deserve that Nobel Prize.
That’s not to dismiss reasonable criticisms of the agreement from, for example, my colleagues at National Review. In an initial checklist of arguments for and against it, Jonah Goldberg makes what I think are three especially serious ones: (1) The North Koreans have reneged on promises of de-nuclearisation before; (2) Maintaining pressure on the Pyongyang regime was a correct policy; (3) An American president heaping praise on an evil dictator in exchange for worthless promises is grotesque.
All these points have force, but they also invite reasonable rejoinders. Let me deal with them in reverse order.
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3. While it is indeed grotesque that a US president should heap praise on a murderous despot (whether in return for worthless promises or not), it is the standard diplomatic accompaniment to new strategic alliances between old enemies. See Churchill’s comment that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.
2. Likewise, what was the purpose of the policy—which I agree was correct—of maintaining pressure on Pyongyang? Surely it had two purposes: either bringing the regime down or persuading it to disarm and reform to stay afloat. The first hasn’t yet happened and is essentially unpredictable (by which I don’t mean very unlikely) until it happens. The second is now being attempted. It may fail, but if it does, we can resume the pressure.
1. The most important criticism, therefore, is that the North Koreans might renege on denuclearisation as they have done before. But as Trump showed them a month ago when he responded to their foot-dragging by cancelling the first summit, he is quite capable of halting the peace process and even putting it into reverse. They must bear that in mind—and also that America’s concessions, including the last-minute offer to cancel US–South Korea military manoeuvres, can be easily reversed.
Jonah Goldberg’s arguments are very close to those made by our old boss, William F. Buckley Jnr, when he accompanied Richard Nixon on his visit to meet Mao Zedong in Beijing to cement a new US–China alliance (and, as a consequence, to break Washington’s ties to Taiwan). Buckley’s moral revulsion at the sight of an American president shaking hands with mass murder in the human guise of Mao was right, proper and decent. It was also supported by strategic and historical arguments that the Maoists were not to be trusted. At the same time, however, Buckley, I and (I assume) Goldberg all came to believe that the Nixon–Kissinger diplomacy was a bold move that changed the world balance of power in the West’s favour and made it far easier for President Reagan to win the Cold War peacefully.
At this stage we simply don’t know how the US–North Korea deal will work out. Will it prove another case of North Korean diplomatic duplicity, or a rational decision by a weakened regime to come in from the cold? Our predictions will therefore be heavily influenced by what we think of Trump himself. That explains why so many dove-ish commentators are suddenly highly sceptical of moves for “peace”.
My first reflection here is that Trump is neither as experienced nor as shrewd as Nixon, who in retrospect was a brilliant foreign policy president (though, alas, not nearly so effective a domestic one). But Nixon himself on several occasions, notably the 1973 bombing of Haiphong, deliberately cultivated a reputation as a dangerous madman to deter the North Vietnamese from continuing their aggressive attacks in South Vietnam and Cambodia. Had Watergate not intervened, South Vietnam, aided by US air-power, might have sustained itself in 1975 as it had done in 1972. Trump sometimes seems to be acting from Nixon’s madman playbook—or from the advice given by the late Herman Kahn on how to win the game of “chicken”: get into the automobile visibly drunk, race towards the other car at high speed, and when thirty yards away from it, throw the steering wheel out of the window.
For much of his presidency, particularly on foreign policy, Trump has been a kind of disruptor-in-chief, breaking the rules, challenging the system, crudely dismissing allied leaders, and sometimes doing all these things without apparent reason or hope of advantage. He seemed to be doing exactly that just days before the Singapore summit by suggesting that Russia should be invited back into the G7, waving the threat of high US tariffs at his European allies, and disavowing the agreed G7 communique he had signed just before leaving to fly from Quebec to Singapore. It caused every kind of outrage, including accusations that Trump’s America was breaking up the West and undermining the system of free trade and capital movements that sustained worldwide liberal democracy. France and Germany, it was said, would have to unite to take Western leadership away from a wayward egotistical America.
But a great deal of this overheated anti-Trump rhetoric was utterly bogus. Several European leaders, for instance the Italians, also want better relations with Russia. Others want to reduce sanctions on Russia for the sake of their own economies. And Chancellor Merkel’s government has gone a great deal further than either of those by agreeing to build Nordstream Two, a Russo-German joint pipeline project, that would entrench Europe’s over-reliance on Russian energy and thus its strategic vulnerability. Denouncing Trump for his reckless affection for Putin looks like a neat tactic for distracting attention from Europe’s treating with the enemy.
Trump’s alleged fondness for trade wars should receive the same sceptical gaze. America’s problems of rust-belt obsolescence and long-run unemployment stem from the advance of technology and low-paid immigration rather than foreign trade competition. American industry today simply produces more goods with fewer workers. But foreign competition is undoubtedly one element in the decline of some US industries—as are the trade barriers erected by America’s competitors to protect their own industries. Much expert commentary seems unaware that the European Union itself is a classic protectionist structure with a common external tariff (in the case of automobiles a very high one). Trump is entitled, indeed politically obliged, to challenge such obstacles to America’s exports. And though the US is not without protectionist sin, far from it, it’s suspicious that Trump’s offer of genuinely free trade—no tariffs, no quotas, no invisible barriers—was not greeted with relief and gratitude but quickly passed over and consigned to the memory hole. Maybe his offer was not a serious one; but the Europeans’ rapid changing of the subject certainly was.
Trump’s scattershot rhetoric on trade may not be the most exact and subtle critique of Europe’s protectionism. But it beats denying Euro-protectionism altogether simply because Trump is the one pointing it out.
As for the arguments that Merkel and Macron must now take over the leadership of the West, well, someone has been drinking too much cognac. Europe at present is both disunited and in a series of grave internal crises. France wants to lead Europe into an economic federalism but Germany won’t give Macron enough money to do so. The Italians and the Greeks want to escape financial rule by Germany but also want to stay in the Eurozone, which makes reliance on German subsidies inescapable. Germany refuses to spend more than 1.2 per cent of GDP on defence while demanding independence from Washington. Britain, one of only two European military powers, wants to leave the EU but France and Germany are trying to ensure it will be economically weaker if it does. And Austria has just closed mosques and expelled Turkish-paid imams, inviting the real prospect that Erdogan will unleash more refugees on a vulnerable Europe still without proper border protection. It’s fantasy to think that this sackful of squabbling ferrets could challenge or replace the US on anything, let alone the defence of the liberal democratic world. If America were in fact relinquishing its leadership of the West—it isn’t—there would be no alternative leader in sight. And the more the matter is discussed, the more obvious that is.
America turned a blind eye to EU protectionism during the Cold War to build up Europe as a strong ally—just as it turned a blind eye to Europe playing the free rider within NATO. Trump’s tactics, disruptive and vulgar though they may be, are a sign that these days are over. He will not stop talking about such matters as European protectionism until America’s allies as well as its rivals agree with Washington on a mutual trade disarmament pact. And when he sent out that message to Brussels, Berlin and Paris, he was sending the same message to Pyongyang: I’m the sheriff in this town, and I don’t take No for an answer.
So: Trump, still crazy after all these years? Or crazy like a fox?