- President Donald Trump deserves some credit for the historic summit that brought together the leaders of North Korea and South Korea.
- The president’s erratic behaviour and general unpredictability may have helped bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the table.
- But that same unpredictability could just as easily reverse course in the future.
It seems like a lifetime ago. But in January, President Donald Trump requested that someone from Kim Jong Un’s “depleted and food starved regime” inform the North Korean leader that Trump, too, had “a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one,” and that unlike Kim’s, “my Button works!”
It was hard to imagine on that day – and on any of the ones that preceded it – that Trump’s predisposition toward erratic, angry outbursts might somehow lead to positive results.
But here we are, a little more than four months after an exchange in which each leader was unsubtly threatening the other with nuclear disaster. We’ve progressed to a point that comes as a pleasant, welcome surprise to many foreign-policy observers.
Kim and Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, met Friday in a historic summit. The news has been filled with detail, including where things took place, who said what to whom, and what concessions were discussed.
Less space has been allocated to exploring the extent to which the US – and Trump – is responsible for this turn of events.
In his book “The Ends of Power,” Bob Haldeman describes a conversation he had with President Richard Nixon. According to Haldeman’s recollections, Nixon said: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Some details are different. But swap the North Vietnamese for the North Koreans, Nixon for Trump, and communism for nuclear weapons or “dealmaking,” and you start to get a picture of how Trump’s erratic behaviour might sometimes actually be an asset in foreign policy.
That said, we’re at the very beginning of what is likely to be a drawn-out, complicated process. And we’re dealing with a country governed by someone equally if not more erratic than Trump.
Writing in The New York Times, Nicholas Eberstadt, the founding director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, explained the problem.
North Korea, he wrote, “can walk away from its peace promises at any time.” When that happens, “it will be able to blame whomever it wishes for this tragic result – potentially polarising politics in South Korea, igniting tensions in Seoul’s alliance with Washington, or fracturing the loose coalition of governments that rallied around sanctions against it.”
Until then, Eberstadt wrote, “Pyongyang will hold the other parties hostage to the fear that if any of its new demands aren’t met, it will quit the peace process.”
All of this is to say that Trump has far outperformed what was expected of him in the foreign-policy arena. We should celebrate that while remaining cautiously optimistic about the results that his words and deeds may yield.
As quickly as his erratic behaviour became an asset, it can become a liability.
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