President Trump's defiant diplomacy Kim Jong Un had a request. It was exactly the kind of shoot-from-the-hip move they hate in the pin-striped confines of the State Department. But the moment was classic Trump. Multiparty agreements, crippling sanctions and threats of military intervention have failed to prevent the totalitarian state from approaching the ability to strike the U.
Now, in less than a year, Trump has gone from threatening Kim with annihilation to the first face-to-face talks between a sitting U. President and a North Korean leader. The result was mixed. But experts pointed out that Kim had made only vague promises of the kind that Pyongyang had violated multiple times before.
The summit theater was the latest and most dramatic example of how the impulsive President is upending the global order. Three days earlier, as he flew to Singapore aboard Air Force One after a testy, two-day economic summit with six of the U. The move was met with stunned protest from Ottawa to London to Paris.
Early on, Trump heeded his top aides when they urged caution. But in the past six months, he has taken increasingly dramatic risks—especially in foreign policy. In December, Trump committed to moving the U. In March, he threatened to impose stiff trade tariffs on China and Europe, then enacted them two months later after global markets generally bounced back from initial losses. In May, he withdrew the U. The populist has famously bristled at convention.
But foreign-policy experts at both ends of the political spectrum are worried about the costs. Already, other countries are retaliating with trade tariffs that could boost prices at home, slow the global economy and spike unemployment. Nowhere are the stakes are higher than in North Korea, where diplomatic failure could set the course for renewed military confrontation.
If Trump misplays his hand, it could endanger millions of lives. For those who have known the President for years, his handling of the summit was trademark Trump: The day after Trump won the election, Ayers asked Trump if he recalled their conversation that night, according to a person close to Trump who was in the room.
Trump said it was one of two or three moments that convinced him to launch a full-fledged bid for the White House. He heard the punch lines as a challenge. Trump was in his office with a handful of senior aides and put Abe on speakerphone. After exchanging pleasantries, Trump said what he often tells acquaintances: Abe said he would be in New York the following week.
The Obama White House was apoplectic. McMaster, began having aides prepare cards that answered four basic questions: Why are we doing this? What will it cost? What are others paying or doing? And what happens next?
For a while, it worked. In the summer of , Trump repeatedly demanded to know why the U. He groused in response to the litany of concerns voiced by aides about moving the U. But he deferred action on the move. He complained that bureaucrats were overstating the potential fallout of ditching the Iran nuclear deal, but put off pulling out of it as he had promised to do during the campaign.
Trump railed against his Cabinet secretaries and staff. The Iran deal was a source of particular frustration. Thanks to the checks Republicans placed on the deal when Obama signed it, Trump was required every three months to certify that Iran was complying with the agreement. Feeling boxed in, the President demanded other options.
Against this backdrop, the President shook up his inner circle, firing chief of staff Reince Priebus and replacing him with Homeland Security boss John Kelly. In exchange for imposing discipline, the retired Marine general demanded tight control over the White House decisionmaking process. But over time they, too, have failed. But arguably the biggest breaks have come on foreign policy.
Tillerson stuck to that line so hard that around the West Wing he become known as the Doomsayer, according to a White House official. The issue came to a head near the end of the year, when Trump pushed the case and Tillerson demurred. Diplomats from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia warned the White House that their leaders would issue forceful objections if Trump went forward, citing fears that formally acknowledging Jerusalem would spark violent clashes over the ownership of a city that has long been a lightning rod for religious and nationalist passions.
Officials tried to stall the move. At a rally on May 10 in Elkhart, Ind. He said he called the U. By the time Trump walked away from the Iran deal, it was clear that the dam had broken during the previous five months and that a two-week period in early March had been particularly telling. On March 1, Trump announced new aluminum and steel tariffs on Europe and China. It was right in the middle of this period that a special envoy from South Korea arrived in Washington on March 8, with a message so urgent and sensitive, it needed to be delivered in person.
The door to the Oval Office clicked shut. For years, the U. Moreover, with little time to plan tactics and strategy, or to demand concessions, there was no way to tell what Kim might give up in return.
Worst of all, if talks proved that there could be no diplomatic solution to the standoff, then military conflict—even nuclear war—could become more likely. But in a matter of minutes, Trump had made up his mind. Trump summoned the South Korean diplomats into the Oval Office and beamed. He had, in some ways, internalized the concerns of his aides. But none of that was in writing. Trump wanted to protect himself. So as he sat with the South Korean envoy, national-security adviser Chung Eui-yong, in the armchairs before the Oval Office fireplace, Trump made an unusual proposal.
It went against long-standing diplomatic protocol for an ally to speak on behalf of the U. Just after 7 p. It was only the beginning of a diplomatic dance that would stun foreign-policy experts. Pompeo made two surprise trips to Pyongyang and brought back three freed American prisoners.
But it turned out that dealing with North Korea might not be so easy. North Korea had gone radio-silent for more than a week.
It was starting to look like the summit would be a diplomatic and public relations disaster. Trump decided to sleep on it. The next morning, after firing off two tweets alleging without proof that the FBI had sent a spy to infiltrate his campaign, Trump personally dictated a letter to Kim that announced he was canceling the summit. The summit was back on. Of course, Trump is hardly the first President to make decisions spontaneously.
President Richard Nixon unexpectedly created what is now a long-standing U. European and Chinese attempts to salvage the Iran deal are faltering, and Iran says it will increase its uranium enrichment capacity now that the U.
In the case of another potential summit with North Korea, embarrassment could prove even more costly. Trump billed the Singapore meeting as just the first of several. This time the fallout would do more than bruise the U. In addition to an arsenal of atomic bombs secreted away in underground tunnels across the country, North Korea has approximately 11, pieces of artillery aimed at Seoul from the mountains north of the demilitarized zone.
There is another possibility: This summit, for all its showmanship, may very well leave the U. Which is fine unless it does.