Hide and seek diplomacy


By the time you read this, President Donald Trump may be planning to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at a historic summit. Or he may not. That’s what we gather from his pronouncements on the subject.

“For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility,” he tweeted in late March. “Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!”

The surprise news that Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo had secretly met with Kim was coupled with disappointment that Pompeo had returned with no concessions. Then there was this statement by Trump: “If we don’t think it’s going to be successful … we won’t have it,” he said last week, suggesting he was ready to scrap the summit or even walk out of it when it was underway.

This is foreign policy as Schrodinger’s cat — America seems to be in two opposite states at the same time. But what works fine in the quantum world is problematic in our Newtonian world, where statements and actions produce effects and direct contradictions produce equal and opposite reactions.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank last week compiled a list of examples of Trump’s ability to hold two contradictory positions without recognizing he is doing so. “We are imposing new sanctions on Russia,” Milbank wrote. “We are not imposing new sanctions on Russia.”

“We’ll decide about bombing Syria in 24 to 48 hours,” Milbank continued. “We might not bomb Syria for a long time. We bombed Syria.”

And: “We are leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We may rejoin the TPP. We are not leaving the TPP.”

Of course, there’s also the tug of war over whether the United States is getting out of Syria or getting more involved. Perhaps it’s possible to do both. President Nixon was getting out of Vietnam while simultaneously getting more involved. But the Vietnam experience soured Americans on their government and its leadership. And some of that seems to be happening again.

Beyond the confusion — which is itself unnerving — there are concerns that Trump and his administration are not up to the task of negotiating with North Korea. “The Trump administration is still not prepared for serious negotiations or yet able to implement a coherent policy toward North Korea based on a well-organized and disciplined policy process,” according to the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “By accepting a high level summit meeting, Trump has essentially unilaterally recognized North Korea and its leader, and in effect legitimized its status as a nuclear weapons state.”

According to this view, at least, we’re already behind in the game we may not even attend.

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