Today begins the latest installment of Donald Trump’s great global demolition derby as he leaves for the annual meeting of NATO allies, a meet and greet with the queen of England and a big bilateral summit in Finland with his favorite authoritarian oligarch, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Odds are that he is feeling his oats after handing the rose to his latest Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, which he sees as yet another unprecedented accomplishment due to his leadership genius. So get ready: This could be a wild ride.
Before Trump gets back on Air Force One we should catch up on the latest news surrounding his last bit foray into international gamesmanship, the pageant in Singapore last month. I know this will come as a huge surprise to everyone but it turns out that Kim Jong-un wasn’t actually so enthralled by the force of Donald Trump’s dazzling personality that he rushed back to Pyongyang to order the immediate dismantling of his nuclear program. He and his government seem to have come away from the talks under the impression that the United States would make even more concessions before North Korea needed to think about doing anything at all. Frankly, since Trump chatted alone with Kim for some time and the agreement they ended up signing was so vague, that may very well be what was agree between them.
Bloomberg published a fascinating inside look at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s disastrous follow-up trip to Pyongyang last week. The North Koreans really ran him through his paces and in the end contradicted his happy talk about “progress” by complaining that the US was acting “gangster-like” with its demands that they denuclearize. It’s pretty clear they would prefer to deal directly with the president, for obvious reasons.
Trump, who had grandly proclaimed after the summit that we could all sleep easily because North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat,” responded to the Pompeo debacle with a tweet that practically begged his pal Kim to stop making him look bad and suggested that China was pulling the strings.
I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2018
As I have written many times, any day that we are not in a nuclear crisis is better than the alternative. Perhaps at some point this will result in some kind of normalization of relations with North Korea. But Trump’s other foreign policy disasters with the trade war with China, the G7 summit in Quebec and what most observers expect will be yet another clash at the upcoming NATO summit have left Trump without many friends at a time when he needs them more than ever to ensure that happens.
North Korea expert Victor Cha has said that normally in this situation, the US would go to Chinese President Xi Jinping and say that diplomacy has hit a snag and it was time for China to tighten its sanctions to bring North Korea back to the table. But Trump has started a nasty (and incoherent) trade war with the Chinese and is now blaming them for the diplomatic impasse with Pyongyang. So his government is unlikely to get much of a hearing there.
He could also, in normal circumstances, go to NATO and other regional allies to put pressure on China and otherwise show a united front to lean on the North Koreans. But he’s loaded for bear going into the annual meeting and is preparing to harangue the other NATO members over money again, because it’s it is literally the only aspect of the organization he knows or cares about. To state the obvious, Trump’s ability to bring America’s traditional allies on board for any collective campaign is now severely hampered by his increasingly hostile relationship with all of them.
So that leads up to Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with his most trusted foreign policy adviser, Vladimir Putin, who will likely suggest that the president do something that will weaken the West’s position and strengthen Putin’s own country. After all, he already persuaded Trump to cancel the joint US-South Korean military exercises as a freebie in the North Korean negotiations. (Trump has unconvincingly insisted that was done to save money, even though those exercises cost less than his cumulative trips to Mar-a-Lago.) Who knows what Putin can persuade Trump to give up next?
When I characterize Putin as being Trump’s favorite foreign policy adviser, I’m not entirely joking. Our president apparently asks the Russian leader for guidance with some frequency. The Washington Post describes a call between them last November in which Trump reportedly asked his friend, “What should I do about North Korea?” Meanwhile:
Some White House officials worry that Putin, who has held several calls with Trump, plays on the president’s inexperience and lack of detailed knowledge about issues while stoking Trump’s grievances. The Russian president complains to Trump about “fake news” and laments that the US foreign policy establishment — the “deep state,” in Putin’s words — is conspiring against them, the first senior US official said.
“It’s not us,” Putin has told Trump, the official summarized. “It’s the subordinates fighting against our friendship.”
The New York Times reports that when Putin complained about some Trump aides not wanting the president to congratulate him on his electoral win, Trump told him to pay no attention because they are “very stupid” people. In contrast, the Times describes Trump being brusque and impatient with leaders of America’s traditional allies, often interrupting them in mid-sentence or insulting them to their faces.
As we have now seen demonstrated in living color, Trump’s alleged negotiating savvy and deal-making prowess have been monumentally oversold. It’s not that we didn’t suspect that already, considering how clumsily he has botched his own domestic legislative agenda over, even with a friendly GOP Congress. Still, you never know. Maybe he had a secret talent for one-on-one negotiations with foreign leaders. But no. He is a disaster.
There is a lot of trepidation among experts in the US and around the world about this trip. Trump seems intent upon blowing up the NATO alliance over his obsession with what even some Europeans now describe as a “protection racket,” in which he blatantly threatens to trade security for economic return.
Since Trump is uninterested in history he does not know or care that peace and prosperity in Europe are essential to peace and prosperity in the United States. When Europeans go to war with each other, as they did twice in the last century, the US ends up paying a huge price in both human and financial terms. As former US ambassador to NATO Ivo Dalder said on MSNBC this week, “70 years of peace is a pretty darned good investment.”
But then, good investments are something Donald Trump doesn’t really understand. This is the guy who couldn’t even make a profit running casinos. He simply can’t recognize a sensible long-term deal when he sees it.