President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un took place at a perilous time for American diplomacy. The meeting came on the heels of a surprising dispute with Canada, Germany, and France at the G7 summit, culminating in Trump’s refusal to support the summit communique and twitter spat with Canada’s Prime Minister. In Singapore with Kim Jong Un, Trump pivoted, and made surprising concessions to the rogue nuclear state. Trump has championed the ideas of unpredictability and brinkmanship, and both are on display. But unpredictability is not a successful foreign policy outlook. The U.S. needs a new approach to restore diplomatic credibility, strengthen partnerships, and meet the nuclear challenges posed by both Iran and North Korea.
The current standing of American diplomacy shows the flaws of Trump’s approach. The U.S. is publicly at odds with Canada over trade, and with European allies over climate, defense spending, and Iran. Transatlantic unity has been frayed by unpredictability and withdrawal from international agreements. As Trump met Kim, many supporters of a substantive deal on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula considered a new hurdle: that counterparts will no longer see the U.S. as credible or capable of implementing a nuclear agreement. Denuclearization is a lofty goal in ideal times, and the current climate makes it even less probable for a nuclear state to voluntarily surrender its capabilities.
In this context, it is unsurprising that the Trump-Kim meeting did not result in a tangible ‘win’ for nonproliferation. North Korea made no new commitments. Kim gained positive publicity surrounding the meeting and a new U.S. commitment to suspend a large-scale military exercise with South Korea. It is unclear what comes next, and the potential for disagreement is high. While disputes with Canada lead to angry tweets, disputes with angry nuclear weapons states have far greater risks.
Trump’s talks with Kim are juxtaposed with his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and lack of a viable strategy. Direct and implicit threats are insufficient to meet long-term challenges, and they exacerbate tensions by empowering Iranian hardliners. Secretary Pompeo’s recent speech on Iran was not a strategy, but a demand for full submission that unilateral U.S. sanctions are unlikely to achieve, especially as European partners advance financial blocking regulations and exemptions from reimposed nuclear sanctions.
In the immediate term, U.S. threats coupled with European efforts may prevent Iranian nuclear escalation. But while the deal’s opponents feared regulations that would ‘sunset’ in the mid-2020’s, we are now in a shakier environment in which those provisions may collapse well before 2020. As a result of JCPOA withdrawal, the international community is less prepared to address a potential collapse, or an ambiguous action by Iran. Prior to the JCPOA, Iran’s strategy was based on developing its nuclear program in the grey area between technical compliance and clear violation. If Iran again began to operate in the margins, without committing a clear violation, how would the world respond?
A viable strategy should emphasize diplomacy wherever possible. It should consider that all other JCPOA parties, including China and Russia, remain committed to the deal. It should deploy threats of force sparingly and wisely, and promote smart diplomatic processes towards both North Korea and Iran when the chances of success appear realistic. Otherwise, the Trump administration risks placing the U.S. in a more isolated position, with less insight into Iran’s nuclear activities, and a diminished ability to leverage the powers of alliances and diplomatic credibility when engaging with rogue regimes. These are important tools that the administration should not turn away from.
Rebecca Bornstein is Director for External Relations and Researcher at the Mitvim Institute.