Elephants in the Room

Trump Didn’t Prepare Much for His Meeting With Kim. Will That Matter?

The best improvisation requires prep work.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answers questions at a press briefing on June 11 in Singapore. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answers questions at a press briefing on June 11 in Singapore. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

How much will the success of U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un depend on the quality and depth of Trump’s own preparations?

That’s the question Trump invited when he bragged that he did not need much prep work in the run-up to the meeting.

If the North Korean summit goes as badly as the G-7 summit did, the critics are likely to pounce on Trump’s braggadocio and blame the president for attempting to wing it during the most important diplomatic test of his administration. Conversely, if the summit goes as well as the president has confidently predicted, Trump and his defenders are likely to credit his unorthodox approach to preparation.

Either reaction would be understandable — but perhaps not entirely fair. For starters, the administration has not been winging it when it comes to North Korea. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, his national security team at the time embarked on a strategic review of the North Korea issue, the outcome of which was the decision to pursue a classic “boat-rocking” strategy — a variant of the one the Trump team has also pursued on the Iran nuclear issue. For the most part, the administration pursued that strategy for the past 18 months, and it has produced some diplomatic successes, notably a U.N. Security Council resolution last December imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea.

I am less confident that the president’s strategic communications efforts on North Korea — the alternating bombast and fawning praise for the Kim regime — have been part of the same well-considered strategy, and the best that can be said for them is that they have forced North Korea off its own well-worn script of invective.

It is almost a certainty that the June 12 summit itself, particularly the quick setup, the abandonment of preconditions, and the lack of pre-summit diplomatic exchanges, did not follow the script of the original strategy. Rather, this was classic Trumpian improvisation, and it was a gamble that he did not need to take at the time, because such a summit bought by U.S. concessions could have been arranged months from now, after the sanctions had taken more of a toll. But this improvisational moment only arose in the first place because of the prior strategic efforts.

Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously opined, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Eisenhower’s most important military venture as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, the D-Day invasion of Normandy launched on June 6, 1944, illustrate this point vividly. This was the largest and most complex military operation ever conducted in human history. The invasion’s success depended on the careful execution of tens of thousands of small tasks, each dependent on the execution of other small tasks. Simply arranging for all of the naval craft arriving at the appointed beaches in time to launch the invasion involved synchronizing the timetables of thousands of ships, launched from different ports and capable of different sailing speeds. The Allies spent years devising, testing, debating, and refining the plans.

And yet, from the get-go, many crucial things failed to go according to plan. Eisenhower had to delay the invasion from the planned June 5 date because of weather. Much of the tactical air bombardment proved useless because of bad visibility and an understandable abundance of caution on the part of the air crew. The airborne operations as executed bore little resemblance to the plans as drawn up. Some gliders landed where they were supposed to, but many did not. A significant fraction of the paratroopers landed so far from their target that they spent days wandering around before they could be an effective fighting force.

The American landings at Omaha Beach were initially a disaster. The British and Canadian landings at Sword, Juno, and Gold beaches went according to plan for the first couple hours, but did not achieve in several weeks the objectives set for the first few hours and days.

The plan produced by the labors of hundreds of thousands of man-hours barely survived a few minutes of contact with the enemy. That was the plan that Eisenhower deemed “useless.”

However, all the work that went into developing the plan was indispensable. What Eisenhower and his fellow generals learned as they developed the plan, and what the junior ranks learned as they rehearsed the plan, positioned them to make sufficiently wise improvisations and adjustments so as not to be paralyzed once they encountered the inevitable surprise, hiccup, or snafu.

Have Trump and his advisors done enough planning and preparation to be able to improvise wisely when it comes to North Korea? A single head of state summit is not as complicated as the D-Day invasion, but as head of state visits go, this is a complex one. Both Trump and Kim are famously thin-skinned and highly sensitive to the kinds of slights, real or imagined, that can arise when summit choreography goes awry. Even if the pageantry comes off satisfactorily, the nitty-gritty work of discussing denuclearization is incredibly complicated, as a thoughtful report by Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control suggests — perhaps more complex than anything Trump has wrestled with before. Achieving real denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a way that does not undermine vital U.S. national security interests throughout northeast Asia is not as daunting an assignment as defeating Hitler’s Wehrmacht, but if the diplomacy fails and war breaks out, the butcher’s bill could eclipse that of any U.S. military operation since World War II.

Trump has said that he will know within the first minute whether the summit will be a success or a failure — in effect, he is saying that he will likely have to adjust his planned script within minutes of delivering his opening lines. The success of his adjustments will depend on the quality of his intuition, but even more on the quality of his preparation. Trump has been thinking about the North Korea nuclear problem for a long time, New York Times reporter Mark Landler wrote in an intriguing and perhaps hopeful piece over the weekend. We will soon discover how useful those years of thinking were.

On the eve of the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower penned a letter accepting blame for the failure of the invasion. It is a sign of his mastery of the plan that Eisenhower realized just how fraught the venture was — and it was a sign of his great leadership skills that he understood that someone would have to take the blame if the mission failed, so the larger war against Hitler could continue. He was prepared to offer up himself as dispensable to protect the viability of his commander in chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The letter was provisional and was never delivered because the invasion turned out to be a success. But one wonders if Trump and his team have reflected on that example and are similarly prepared to accept responsibility if the summit fails. Whether they need to may depend on how well they have prepared.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.