A lot of the reactions to President Trump’s visits to the G20 in Osaka and to Korea have been scathing, but there are some positive signs in regard to both US-China trade issues and negotiations with North Korea. But having encouraged hard-line one-dimensional attitudes on both issues within the US, Trump may find that maintaining his apparent new-found flexibility runs up against domestic political opposition, including from within his own party.
Trump’s Osaka talks with Xi had at least four “visible” outcomes: US-China trade talks will resume; the US will not impose additional duties on Chinese exports to it; it will not ban US exports to Huawei which are “not of great national security significance”, to quote Trump; and the whole issue of Huawei may be addressed at the end of the broad US-China trade negotiation. The first two of these have been widely welcomed by the US and world business communities. The third has been welcomed by the firms wishing to continue exports to Huawei but it, and the fourth point, have been criticised in Congress and elsewhere for being “soft on Huawei”, which the Administration has encouraged Americans to regard simply as a sinister national security threat. Republican Senator Mario Rubio has threatened to move in Congress to prevent any dealings with Huawei, so if Trump intends to stick to what he said in Osaka he may end up having to veto “patriotic” legislation.
While the issues to do with China are tangible, Trump’s latest dealings with Kim have been widely dismissed as simply catering to both men’s love for a show, and unlikely to lead to any worth-while results. The American demand for “complete, verifiable disarmament”, which seems to have been accepted as legitimate by much of the American public and media, is not seen as any closer to realisation. Trump is accused of giving Kim status he doesn’t deserve, and gaining nothing in return.
In fact of course the American “maximum demand” approach is widely regarded by experts as unrealistic, “a slogan but not a serious policy”, according to Richard Haass, President of the US Council on Foreign Relations. It could be seen from the start to be unacceptable to North Korea, something sold to Trump by National Security Adviser Bolton on the basis of it having worked with Libya (whose leader Ghaddafi, the North Koreans would have noticed, was later deposed and killed). So some signs that emerged after the Trump-Kim talks, and the circumstances in which Trump’s remarks were made, may be both significant and positive.
First, Bolton wasn’t there, having been sent off to conduct officials talks in Mongolia. Secondly, Trump said that negotiations with the North Koreans would shortly resume at officials level (Pompeo has said this month), and that the US officials to meet with the North Koreans would be chosen by Pompeo. Steve Biegun, the US official designated by Trump to work with the North Koreans, was standing at Pompeo’s shoulder, both just behind Trump, when he said it. On 28th June Biegun was quoted as saying that the US was ready to make “simultaneous and in parallel” progress with North Korea towards the goals agreed at the Singapore summit. It’s widely believed that Biegun had something like that agreed with the North Koreans before the Hanoi summit, which for whatever reasons
Trump let Bolton wreck by introducing new “maximum demands” at the last minute.
“Simultaneous and in parallel” of course sounds very much like the step by step process advocated by China, as well as by Russia and both Koreas, from the start of the discussion about US-North Korea nuclear disarmament negotiations. Since Trump left Korea the idea of a new American approach has been taken further by David Sanger in the “New York Times”, who has claimed that a “nuclear freeze” by North Korea in exchange for moves by the US is in contemplation. Amusingly, given the widespread view of his role in wrecking the Hanoi summit, John Bolton responded to this news in a tweet from Mongolia saying that “this was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences.” The “New York Times” is standing by its story.
Of course it remains to be seen what happens. In contrast to the US, North Korean media is very positive about the DMZ meeting, no doubt reflecting that country’s strong desire to see sanctions eased. But we have yet to see whether the US, and Trump, will stick with, and implement, what so far seems to be a new readiness to contemplate a step-by-step approach. If they do it will be in the face of possibly strong domestic scepticism and hostility, in what is already a pre-election period.
If Trump is ready to change tack, what has brought this about? One answer of course could be “the people he’s been talking to”, namely Putin and Xi. They have both recently spoken with Kim, are familiar with the issues and sympathetic to North Korea, and are on the record in favour of a gradual approach to its nuclear disarmament. They are also both in a position to have advised Kim on how he should put his position to Trump, and both people who, for whatever mixture of reasons, Trump seems to respect and listen to.
Another possible answer, which doesn’t exclude the first, is Trump’s felt need for a foreign policy triumph, and a conclusion by him that despite all his personal involvement so far the “maximum demands” approach is simply not going to deliver it.
These changes in Trump’s positions, if real (at least for the moment), encourage consideration of his relationships with his advisers—Mnuchin and Lighthizer in relation to China trade, and Pompeo, and especially Bolton, in relation to Korea. It seems that more than most leaders he has an ambivalent relationship with his advisers, on the one hand giving them free rein to run a strong policy line in his name, while on the other maintaining mental reservations about it, and even them, and being quite prepared to make policy and personnel changes if he concludes that the existing arrangements have lost their utility and effectiveness. Does he pay more attention to his senior advisers or to Putin and Xi? The future of the protagonists, as well as of the policies, will be worth keeping an eye on as things develop.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official. He was Director-General of the Office of National Assessments, and Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.