Elephants in the Room

Trump Was Right to Walk Away

In resisting the temptation to make a bad deal, he avoided failure at the Hanoi summit.

U.S. President Donald Trump departs his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump departs his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is taking a beating from critics for what they call a failed summit between the U.S. president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week. But walking away from the bad deal on offer—sanctions rollback without full denuclearization—made the meeting, if not a great success, not a complete failure either.

In the lead-up to the summit, Trump and his team were sending signals that they were overeager for a deal. As Michael J. Green observed last week in a piece for Elephants in the Room, there were worrying indications that the president was trying to reset the parameters for success such that he could accept a deal that the Trump of January 2018 would have denounced as unacceptable.

The pressure on Trump to try to spin gold from straw must have been enormous. With reversals and setbacks on multiple foreign-policy fronts, North Korea was one of the few policy lines on which he could find mainstream experts rooting for him. Moreover, having already touted his progress as Nobel Peace Prize-worthy, it would be awkward to admit that the progress had stalled. All of that was before the Democrats on Capitol Hill scheduled a dumpster fire to run split-screen alongside his choreographed summitry. It was almost as if Democrats were double dog daring him to take the gamble on a headline-stealing faux deal. And then the flare-up between India and Pakistan in Kashmir provided yet one more incentive for Trump to make compromises in order to get some good news quickly.

To Trump’s credit, he resisted all of those temptations and did the right thing: He walked away. In doing so, he gave himself another bad headline, but marginally—and perhaps meaningfully—improved the chances of securing a better deal with North Korea. The North will only make the concessions it needs to make in order to satisfy minimum U.S. national security interests if the North Korean regime knows that the United States believes a bad deal is worse than no deal. The North Koreans must be made to see that the U.S. side has viable options other than accepting whatever Pyongyang offers up. Ever since the Singapore summit of June 2018, Trump has been giving the impression that he is desperate for any deal. Ironically, former President Barack Obama’s reluctance to walk away was a major and valid line of critique of how he handled negotiations with Iran over the nuclear deal, and it is one reason why many experts believed that a tougher negotiating stance might have elicited a better deal at the time.

Trump, for now, has avoided walking into this same trap—even if he did dance alongside it for longer than I thought was wise. He also deserves credit for not overreacting, not as of press time anyway, to the collapse of the summit. He ended the meeting with gracious and hopeful words about a future deal. That is the right posture diplomatically.

His press conference in Hanoi was not pitch-perfect. He stumbled on the question about Otto Warmbier, the college student who died after imprisonment in North Korea in 2017. Trump awkwardly gave an answer that suggested he believed Kim’s implausible story that he had not been briefed on the status of Warmbier in prison. Instead, Trump should have said something like: “Kim knows my views on Warmbier, and they haven’t changed. What the North Koreans did to this U.S. citizen is unacceptable, and I will never condone it. But we have fully aired that matter with the North Koreans. Today’s summit was about the nuclear issue. That is what we focused on.”

But compared to his other press conferences, the president mostly gave reasonable answers, given the setting.

There are plenty of other crises at home and abroad demanding Trump’s attention. He was right not to make his problems worse by creating another crisis—a policy crisis—by means of a bad deal in Hanoi. He did not overreact, and neither should we.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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