Singapore Was Just the First Episode of Trump’s North Korea Show
Here are five issues to watch moving forward.
The past week of summitry has been as disorienting as any in recent memory. It started with the worst G-7 meeting ever and ended with U.S. President Donald Trump’s historic sit-down with North Korea’s leader that displayed all of the skills Trump sharpened as a reality TV host and occasional wrestling star, complete with a movie trailer that seemed to a be a mashup of a travel commercial and Team America: World Police.
We’ll be spending weeks puzzling over these summits — no doubt entertained by more leaks of behind-the-scenes stories and further confused by officials scurrying to give conflicting versions of what actually happened.
But what does this mean for Trump’s foreign policy? Here are five things I expect to follow the Singapore summit:
1. This was just the first episode of the North Korea show. As Trump said about Kim Jong Un, “We will meet many times.” From the president’s perspective, Singapore was a runaway hit. He got wall-to-wall fawning television coverage, aired in prime time, with a program that was a diplomatic combination of The Apprentice, the Super Bowl and a buddy movie.
Sure, experts are wringing their hands because the substance was underwhelming, but that’s not a problem in Trump’s world: For two days, he presided over the greatest show on earth. Trump understands that, as with his off-the-hook political rallies, people can’t turn away. Thinking ahead, the usual North Korean foot-dragging won’t be a sign of failure — it will only build anticipation for the next episode, perhaps coming this fall in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (which would be nice timing for the U.S. congressional midterm elections).
2. The issue of U.S. troops in South Korea is not going away. Trump offered the biggest substantive surprise of the summit, announcing a pause in the U.S. “war games” with South Korea. In typical Trump fashion, this apparently wasn’t coordinated with either the Pentagon or allies such as South Korea and Japan, and in explaining his decision, he parroted the Chinese and North Korean line that such exercises aren’t about maintaining military readiness and are unnecessarily “provocative.”
For years, Trump has made it clear that he sees little strategic value in keeping troops in South Korea — in his mind, this is another example of the U.S. wasting money to protect ungrateful allies. And his repeated assertion that the potential withdrawal of troops could save a lot of money (a dubious claim, given what it costs in military readiness) shows he’s laying the groundwork for them to come home. This would be the greatest shift in Washington’s approach to Asia since the normalization of relations with China in 1979, and it set up a major clash with Asian allies, Congress, and Trump’s own Pentagon.
3. The NATO summit could be a train wreck. Think the G-7 was bad? Wait until next month when Trump sits down in Brussels with 28 U.S. allies, most of whom he thinks are deadbeats for not meeting their pledge to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. The alliance has worked up some good deliverables for leaders to agree to, but it is very likely these get overshadowed by major drama over burden-sharing.
NATO summits are tedious for even the most diligent presidents — I recall President Barack Obama reading on his iPad during one especially boring session — and at this one, Trump’s impatience will be tested (last year’s meeting was just a “mini-summit”). He will likely go out of his way to create an image to respond to the confrontational photo released by the Germans at the G-7. Expect more talk of “old Europe” versus “new Europe.” I also wouldn’t be surprised if Trump suggests that NATO return to its practice of inviting the Russian president to attend summits — last the case in 2010 — which would drive a spike into the middle of the alliance.
4. The U.S. midterm elections will make trans-Atlantic relations even worse. Even with the likely turbulence to come, we may come to think of the NATO summit as smooth compared to the state of trans-Atlantic relations after November. If there is no Democratic wave, Trump will be further emboldened, and European leaders will be even more dyspeptic and resigned to preparing for a post-American world.
If there is a change in power, with Democratic leaders and committee chairs working to thwart Trump and promote policies the Europeans favor — on climate change, trade, and the Iran nuclear deal — Trump will take it personally and assert that Europeans are now siding with his political enemies, the very people who are investigating his administration and, quite possibly, trying to impeach him. This is going to make the “freedom fries” tensions seem quaint.
5. Coming attractions include the diplomatic play with Iran. Successful shows spawn sequels — think The Celebrity Apprentice — and once the ratings drop for North Korea diplomacy, look for Trump to take his act to Iran.
As the summit with North Korea showed, Trump is not burdened by the intricacies of nonproliferation policies, and he would find the spectacle of an Iranian summit irresistible. Remember that Trump didn’t just want to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, but to pull out of the whole of the Middle East, and what better way to do that than to make peace with Iran? Sure, leaders in the Gulf and Israel would be apoplectic. But they have to know that in Trump’s world, there are never any friends, only business associates who can be jettisoned for higher profits.