The enigma of President Trump was on full display this past week from his confounding, divergent approaches towards North Korea and Iran. The American president is appealing to one through cordial dialogue for nuclear disarmament, while at the same time threatening the other with bellicose rhetoric over non-existent weapons.
Such anomalous logic by the American leader could make a strong argument for why nations that find themselves on the wrong side of Washington should arm themselves with nukes. It would appear that having weapons of mass destruction is a sensible insurance policy to ward off American aggression.
But it also raises questions about how reliable or genuine is this White House’s foreign policy.
At the superficial level of optics, it was an historic visit when Trump stepped over the demilitarized zone last Sunday and shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. It was the first time a sitting US president has ever set foot in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since the 1950-53 war. The meeting was apparently cordial and both men held private talks for about an hour before Trump returned to South Korean territory.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who accompanied Trump, later said that partial progress was made towards negotiating a deal for North Korea’s eventual nuclear disarmament. A previous meeting in Hanoi earlier this year had faltered.
However, skeptics again pointed out the lack of detailed modalities for how such a disarmament process would be achieved, or what the US was prepared to do in return about lifting its harsh sanctions off Pyongyang.
By contrast, only days later, Trump issued further military threats against Iran after Tehran announced that it was going to suspend its compliance with the 2015 international nuclear accord by increasing its enrichment levels of fissile uranium. That step by Iran does not necessarily mean it is planning to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran has repeatedly said it has no intention. The enriched uranium-235 isotope can also be used for many beneficial civilian applications, including for energy, scientific research and medicine.
Iran says it is compelled to suspend the nuclear accord because the Trump administration walked away from it last year and because the European powers have failed to uphold their obligations to normalize economic trade with Tehran. The unravelling of the treaty is regrettable because that deal was internationally acclaimed to be a diplomatic success for nuclear non-proliferation. The Trump administration’s abrogation of the accord – based on flimsy claims that Iran is secretly intent on building nuclear weapons – does not stand up to independent expert scrutiny or international consensus.
So, here we have Trump taking a softly, softly approach to North Korea and apparently pulling out all the diplomatic stops for mutual engagement, yet towards Iran he is trashing a multilateral UN-backed safeguard against nuclear weapons proliferation.
That raises misgivings about this president’s credibility and reliability. If he can tear up an international treaty with Iran – seemingly on a whim – how can Trump be trusted to honor any future deal with North Korea?
Some former US officials and American media decried Trump’s “historic” visit to North Korea as nothing more than a “PR stunt” and “photo-op” for the purpose of flattering an insatiable habit for self-aggrandizement.
Certainly his contradictory attitude and logic towards Iran would indicate that Trump has an incoherent, if not disingenuous, foreign policy on the matter.
What if North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un insists that the US side must lift sanctions in a reciprocal way if it were to decommission its nuclear arsenal? Will Trump take the hump and revert to his earlier bellicose stance towards “Little Rocket Man”? For there seems to be a dearth of principle or consistency in what this president says or does.
Apart from re-election photo-ops, there is also a suspicion that Trump could be using engagement with North Korea as a lever against his bigger geopolitical prize, China. By appearing to appease China’s long-time ally in Pyongyang, Trump may be calculating such a move would undermine Beijing’s sway in East Asia.
More widely, Trump’s erratic “policies” – perhaps that is too serious a word to describe his impetuous conduct – raises questions for other nations, in particular China and Russia.
How much can Trump be trusted or relied upon over matters of trade disputes and arms controls when his words and actions are contradicted so glaringly by American military buildup and strategic aggression towards both China and Russia?
If Trump were seriously committed to dialogue and peaceful nuclear disarmament, he should be lifting sanctions off both North Korea and Iran and respecting international norms of diplomatic engagement.
His administration would also not be walking away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia while maintaining provocative economic sanctions on Moscow. Trump’s apparently amiable greeting to Russian President Putin at the recent G20 summit in Japan does not carry much weight for a substantive normalization of bilateral relations between the US and Russia. Personal expression of bonhomie is one thing. Meaningful political change is quite another.
All in all, Trump’s “historic” engagement with North Korea is not convincing that this president has the political integrity to succeed in his stated desire for peace on the Korean Peninsula, or elsewhere. His reckless aggression towards Iran is a major proof of that.