DA NANG, Vietnam — The Trump-Kim summit held Tuesday in Singapore represented the triumph of hype over experience. The event was the first reality-television summit in American history, a sham staged for the cameras featuring D-list characters from supporting players like Dennis Rodman and Sebastian Gorka to the two leaders themselves.
But unlike the more engaging reality-TV shows that contain a little drama and even a smidge of humanity, this was pure rose ceremony from beginning to end, a pre-cooked bromance based not on true love or respect but on the need of both principals to be known and admired by audiences watching at home.
It was also much worse than that. Because as shallow as the exercise was and as inconclusive as its discussions proved to be, it did have real consequences. The president of the United States essentially provided the kind of elevation and endorsement the North Korean leader and his family have sought for decades. Not only did he treat him as an equal; he did not in any meaningful way make an issue of the fact that Kim, his father, and his grandfather had enslaved their people, wantonly tortured and murdered them, and violated every norm of civilized behavior agreed to as minimum standards by the international community.
Worse still, Trump went further, saying it was an “honor” to meet the totalitarian butcher. He may as well have wrapped Kim in the flag and given this man who was threatening the nuclear incineration of Americans months earlier a Presidential Medal of Freedom just for showing up.
Actually, he did Kim better than that. He spoke of a future visit of Kim to the White House and of Trump to Pyongyang. He promised during the post-event press conference to suspend U.S. military exercises in the Koreas even though this removes U.S. leverage just as real negotiations are beginning. He even said he was considering pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea, a game-changer with implications for the entire region and a big win were it to happen not just for North Korea but also for China and Russia.
Finally, of course, Trump elevated and embraced Kim just days after insulting and condemning America’s most important democratic allies, creating a juxtaposition that sent a message to the world that what once were thought of as American priorities and values were now being torn into little pieces by this president who apparently likes to do that with documents and historical positions for which he no longer has any use.
Trump argued via Twitter that “haters and losers” did not appreciate the concessions made by Kim, citing the release of prisoners and the cessation of missile and nuclear testing by the North. Of course, he did not dwell on the fact that praising someone for releasing prisoners is not unlike praising a man for no longer beating his wife.
As for the cessation of testing, it did not come with guarantees it would not be resumed nor with any hint of agreement to the terms of verifiable denuclearization that the administration had long insisted was the standard—on that front, there were just vague promises of a process, little different from those in past agreements. Further, of course, the nuclear-testing holiday was in part motivated by the fact that the North Koreans had inadvertently caved in their own nuclear testing site.
Some well-meaning observers nonetheless sought to portray the meeting as an opening to a new kind of dialogue between the North and the United States and our South Korean allies. This argument is founded on the perfectly sensible view that dialogue is better than war. But it downplays or deliberately ignores the fact that neither of the two principals have any track record of honoring their commitments, that neither have taken any of the steps necessary to set the stage for a meaningful dialogue (like agreeing to even the definitions of the most basic common vocabulary), nor has either shown any willingness at all to make the central concessions such an on-going exchange might require to be successful as the post-event communique revealed.
Further, both Trump and Kim have proven themselves completely untrustworthy when it comes to honoring international agreements—Trump most recently with his abrogation of U.S. responsibilities under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal.
The joint statement signed by the two sides at the conclusion of the brief meetings of the leaders had all the gravitas of a high-school yearbook pledge to stay friends after school was out—thus further underscoring the utter emptiness of the exercise. It was such a swirl of garish color around a core of nothingness, that an observer might well have concluded this event was the work of Trump’s barber rather than his secretary of state. It contained little new and was weakened dramatically by the president’s ill-considered post-summit press conference.
While the posturing of Trump and Kim for the cameras is, of course, on its face better than their terrifying, over-the-top saber-rattling of a few months back, and while any process that may ostensibly lead to peace is worth pursuing, experience tells us that extreme caution is called for.
Indeed, the summit may well have raised a number of risk factors. It will almost certainly further empower the corrupt and damaging regimes of each leader back home. It might thus further enable them to do the kind of damage they have made their signature moves on the international stage—for example, take Trump’s toying with a pullback of U.S. forces from South Korea. This comes just after his unhappy incident with our Atlantic allies a few days before and his prior statements about NATO. So the prospect of Trump dismantling security infrastructure and retreating from our traditional leadership role seems a distinct possibility.
Certainly, in South Korea they must be wondering whether the consequences of the Singapore summit make peaceful reconciliation in the Koreas less rather than more likely.
It made for great television. And it was better than a nuclear war. But, that’s a pretty low bar to set for international diplomacy, and in Donald Trump’s over-eagerness to make the summit appear to be a success he may well have set in motion the weakening of the U.S. and our allies in material and long-lasting ways.