Donald Trump has long believed that he could eliminate nuclear weapons from the world. He is the greatest negotiator ever, and he doesn’t understand why those wimpy diplomats can’t just heave a hearty “Fuck You” across the conference table and walk out, which would induce the other party to come around.
The administration’s approach to foreign policy is driven by Trump’s ignorance and greed, but with an inertial component of conventional policy development by the permanent government employees who remain at lower levels, and a layering of political appointees with their own agendas, some of which dovetail with Trump’s, some of which are more or less conventional foreign policy, and some that are quite idiosyncratic.
Trump’s impulsiveness and desire to be the center of attention lead to statements of policy unexpected by other components of the government. “They were informed by tweet” is a statement that often appears in news stories. After an initial surprise, the impulsive statements may be modified or suppressed, but some work their way into official policy.
Conventional foreign policy analysis is still useful in looking at other countries. North Korea’s response to Trump, for example, is pretty much what you would expect. Russia isn’t too far off, although the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, whatever it may be, can be a confounding factor. But in order to understand America’s actions today, we have to look at Trump’s motivations.
North Korea has again launched some missiles. They are not ICBMs that could reach the United States. Trump tweeted that he is willing to wait it out, although it was earlier reported that he was angry about the launch. And Trump’s tweet says that “Anything in this very interesting world is possible,” which may be a threat.
Trump wants big wins, and he seems to be holding out for a total surrender of all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before removing any sanctions at all. North Korea is operating on a more normal timeline, in which small moves on each side gradually build confidence toward a goal. North Korea has made some token moves, and they feel that it is time for the United States to do the same.
Reliable rumor has it that teams at the State Department and the national laboratories are on call to bring North Korea’s nuclear weapons back when Kim gives the word. Trump and his administration really believe that this will happen.
In Trump’s mind, waiting is easy. The two summits with Kim gave him lavish photo-ops and the ability to say that he is negotiating. He has put his deal on the table. It is up to Kim to accept it.
In Trump’s business life, he probably could walk away from a deal that was going bad after he proclaimed success. The people working for him tied up the loose ends, and he never noticed. He just went on to another deal. Next after North Korea could be a grand arms control deal with Russia and China. He would certainly get a Nobel Prize for that.
The greatest negotiator, with the greatest mind – he’s said that he could master the details of arms control in an hour or so – doesn’t need advisors. He has now gutted much of the advisory structure surrounding the President. The State Department has been cut back. Ambassadors are absent in many countries. The cabinet is composed of people who don’t know what they are doing, many of them in acting positions. His closest advisors in the White House are his children and toadies. Anyone who has disagreed with him has been removed.
So now he can run international relations as he has always believed they should be run. There has been an unfortunate distraction from the Special Counsel and Congress, but now that the Mueller report is out and tied up by Attorney General Bill Barr, that problem has been solved, as Trump and Vladimir Putin argeed.
For Trump, the central consideration is his being able to preen as a great negotiator and claim that he is making important agreements. This week’s North Korean missile test, therefore, is unimportant. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is already playing it down, although the South Koreans, who are within the missiles’ ranges, are not so happy.
Trump’s strategy of ignoring facts that inconveniently undermine his narratives has worked for him as a real estate developer and television personality. Those interactions were managed by his underlings and are likely to disappear if one ignores them. International issues don’t go away. Kim continues to build up his nuclear arsenal and, further, expects continuing negotiations, including reciprocal actions. The missile test is a reminder of that. If Trump continues to ignore Kim’s inconvenient actions, Kim has more.
When and how will Trump react? It appears that he has never been in this kind of situation before, so it’s impossible to predict. So far, “Lalalalalalala I can’t hear you” is working for him.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.