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Why Trump Bombed in Hanoi

North Korea's calculus is less about the demands of the United States and more about who from the United States is doing the demanding.

The thrill is gone. (White House photo by Shealah Craighead, public domain.) 

When major summit meetings end as fast as the one just wrapped in Hanoi, it’s for one of two reasons: Either the summiteers realized they had no differences of opinion to slow things down, or they found out early that their differences of opinion would short-circuit anything else from happening.

We might have guessed that the second Donald Trump summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, just ended in Hanoi, would have the same kind of unsatisfying stalemate as happened last June in Singapore. We could tell that the first day, when it was announced that North Korea and the United States had already failed to reach agreement on the crippling sanctions imposed on North Korea. What followed that first news were claims and counterclaims, concessions asked for and concessions allegedly ignored, each country offering an explanation as to why things went south so fast.

From the North Korean perspective, it may have come down to intransigence, an unwillingness to budge. But for the United States, the failed talks in Hanoi point to a growing institutionalization of American failure on the world stage, an inability to successfully advance American values and interests in a vital region of a shrinking, combustible world.

Kevin Liptak of CNN explained: “Without a joint agreement staking out the road toward North Korea's denuclearization, Trump left Hanoi in largely the same position he arrived. Once hoping the summit might prove wrong the detractors of his diplomatic gamble, instead, Trump departed with all the same questions lingering about how he plans to convince Kim to abandon his arsenal.”

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WTF happened? A lot of things:

The Trump administration has, for the second year in a row, discovered how the possession of nuclear weapons really matters to North Korea. Right or wrong, nuclear capability has become as much a part of NK's national-security identity as an emerging nation as nuclear weapons are to the United States as a developed nation. And for most of the same reasons.

In Hanoi and in Singapore, North Korea was being asked, one way or another, to make an existential change, a transformation — in what purports to be a “negotiation.” It’s a deception that certainly provokes the nationalistic reflex.

Nuclear weapons by definition confer geopolitical gravity upon the nations that have them. Like with the scrawny neighbor kid who commands fresh respect from old tormentors after a growth spurt adds four inches and twenty pounds to his frame, nukes focus the mind of a country’s neighbors wonderfully. Old foes are at least a little afraid.

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As such, nuclear-weapons capability is a hard thing to surrender on demand. To do so makes you helpless against your neighbor’s schemes and entreaties; that measure of control over your own geopolitical destiny disappears. Who does that without serious pushback, or seriously equal concessions?

From the perspective of an isolationist regime with a command economy and a skeptical view of the intentions of certain foreign powers, it’s hard to walk away from that which you’ve developed. It’s an expression of naturally acquisitive human nature, evident in a range of human actions, from despots stockpiling nuclear weapons to everyday people stockpiling money in the bank. 

It's not that complicated: You’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Kim Jong Un and/or his advisers and minions can read international news stories as well as anyone; rest assured they’ve been reading a lot of the stories out of Washington for the past year. What almost certainly figures in the North Korean diplomatic calculus has less to do with the demands of the United States vis-à-vis nuclear disarmament, and more to do with who from the United States is doing the demanding: namely, a deeply wounded American president whose ability to leverage events at home — witness the Cohen hearings on Feb. 27 — is increasingly precarious.

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If Trump can’t control the narrative about his own administration in his own country, what hope did he really have to advance the U.S. nuke disarmament agenda half a planet away? The North Koreans may well have come to that conclusion.

They may have quietly decided that, longer term, it would be better to make overtures guaranteeing a summit success to an American government the North Koreans could be sure would be a government in the future — rather than commit to an agreement with a White House already under fire, an administration whose future existence can’t necessarily be seen as a foregone conclusion.

The Trump White House’s bid for a diplomatic success with Kim was just frustrated (much like it was the first time, at Singapore) by the Trumpian way of doing things. If past was prologue, House Trump likely attempted to impose its will on the North Koreans, employing the bellicose, pugnacious, my-way-or-the-highway approach to negotiation that’s typified Trump’s foreign policy over Europe, Iran and the Middle East — the same negotiating style that’s typified his approach to making domestic policy from the start of his administration.

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This belligerence of style is powered by the hunch: The Trump White House relies on conducting diplomacy by intuition. Trump’s tried to make a virtue of going with his gut on matters that deserve a more studied, reliable metric of evaluation. Much like Bush #43 (who infamously said he looked Vladimir Putin “in the eye” and there discovered the dictator’s capacity for directness and truth), Trump depends on feeling to make important decisions. On a cutthroat world stage, those hunches get you just so far.

Trump’s tendency to “wing it” is also communicated to those facing him across the table. When Trump’s dependence on touchy-feely is so widely recognized by our adversaries, their leverage is enhanced in just about every negotiation. Now, add Trump’s automatic reverence for autocrats. Trump really likes rulers, the people who try to run countries as if they were companies, and he laments the fact that he can’t do the same thing.

For Trump, the next best thing to being that kind of maximum leader is cozying up to one. Or two. Like Vladimir Putin. Or Mohammed bin Salman al Saud. Or Rodrigo Duterte. Or Kim Jong Un.

But here’s the thing: Once they know that — and they all know that by now — they can read Trump for the suckup to autocrats that he is... and what little leverage Trump has, in almost any sphere of negotiation, all but vanishes. He wouldn’t have come home from Vietnam with nothing if that weren’t true.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu observed that, liberally paraphrasing, “the battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” It’s 2,000-year-old wisdom more recently made a foundation of modern business philosophy, and Donald Trump has ignored most or all of its central tenets: Prepare. Know the terrain. “Much strategy prevails over little strategy, so those with no strategy cannot [help] but be defeated.”**

Trump needs to read it. It’ll save him a lot of work next time he’s contemplating a summit. As it turned out, though, and for several reasons, circumstances both beyond Trump’s control and under his control, the Hanoi summit was pretty much doomed before Air Force One ever left the United States.

** From The Art of War, Translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala 1988.

Michael Eric Ross
Michael Eric Ross

Michael Eric Ross writes from Los Angeles on pop culture, politics, film and other subjects. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, Medium, PopMatters, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, msnbc.com, Salon, and other publications. 

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