Observers of American diplomacy with North Korea over the last 18 months could be forgiven for suffering from a case of severe whiplash. During a period where the DPRK has successfully tested both its most powerful nuclear weapon yet as well as a rapid succession of ever-more-capable long-range missiles, the new administration of President Donald Trump threatened, insulted and cajoled it, even as the new South Korean government tried to find a more conciliatory path. The last few months have seen even greater turbulence, as Trump unexpectedly indicated a willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a summit was scheduled, then cancelled amidst renewed threats, and then confirmed.
Trump, as has endlessly been observed, places great stock in his ability as a negotiator. But nearly halfway into his term, it is increasingly difficult to find evidence for his claim. The North Korean situation is a case in point. To be fair to the President, the number of variables and baked-in difficulties are considerable, and any number of American presidents have failed to find a lasting solution. Still, the extent to which Trump has squandered what should have been a relatively strong negotiating position (given that most of the world is not especially happy with a reclusive dictatorship possessing nuclear-tipped ICBMs) is remarkable.
Central to his conceit is the idea that unpredictability is key to successful negotiation. There is an element of truth at a basic level, but it also represents a fundamentally limited view of what ‘negotiation’ entails. Trump came directly to politics from the worlds of real-estate development and reality TV, where you could be forgiven for thinking that all negotiations are two-party, zero-sum affairs with limited consequences for loudly walking away. That is very much not the case in international relations, where there are numerous parties with enormous stakes, and where positive-sum results are not only possible but desirable. (It is worth noting here that Trump’s negotiating tactics frequently backfired in civilian life as well, but the distance between real-estate and nuclear arms negotiations is so great that it is not worth belabouring the point.)
The fundamental problem is that Trump has not made the jump from negotiating on behalf of a compact, family-owned private corporation which is essentially a singular extension of his own financial interests to negotiating on behalf of a global superpower with long-standing alliances, obligations and agreements held in delicate tension. Put another way: If the end goal of a negotiation is ‘a television show starring Donald J. Trump,’ then Donald J. Trump has considerable leverage over the conditions under which the show is made and distributed. If the end product is ‘a settlement on the Korean peninsula’, then Trump has to contend number of other actors – not least North Korea, South Korea, China, and Japan – with comparable or greater leverage themselves.
In that respect, the President’s power in the situation is extremely dependent upon whether other powers perceive him as reliable – and, having just unilaterally blown up the nuclear deal with Iran, there are extremely good reasons to view him as exactly the opposite. Not only is Trump’s idea of ‘unpredictability’ unhelpful to improving the US negotiating position, it is actively harmful to it. Cancelling the summit suddenly and unexpectedly (and, apparently, without advance warning to American allies) and then re-opening negotiations immediately is not a clever tactic; it is a fire sale of American negotiating positions.
Why? Well, other countries have fundamental interests at stake here, too. South Korea, with its large and modern military, would probably win a war with the North, even without American support – but such a conflict would be bloody and costly beyond measure. The DPRK’s army uses mostly antiquated equipment, but it is enormous, heavily fortified and has huge quantities of artillery along with nuclear and chemical weapons. As a result, accepting a suboptimal deal that lessens the risk of war is a much more acceptable prospect for the ROK’s leadership, and brinksmanship is to be avoided at all costs.
The North has interests as well. Having spent decades and a fearsome percentage of its GDP to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them, the DPRK is singularly unlikely to hand them over in exchange for a promise of American aid (again, especially given Trump’s failure to follow through on promises elsewhere in the world). And why would it? Experts can disagree on the precise capabilities of the North’s missile and warhead combination, but the fact of the matter is that American population centres are now effectively held at risk. As a result, its negotiating strategy is informed by a position of relative strength, not weakness – something Trump, the self-described negotiation expert, really ought to understand.
In that context, American unpredictability simply does not work. Repeating hard-line negotiating positions is barely more effective. As undramatic and predictable as it might seem, a slow, low-key multilateral negotiation process still offers the best hope for a successful outcome. It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump’s administration can summon those qualities.