The Korea Talks and Why Policy Processes Matter
Trump got the Korean encounter off to a characteristically impulsive and seat-of-the-pants start by joining unannounced a lower-level meeting with the South Korean officials who had met with Kim, immediately making his decision about a summit meeting, and insisting that the decision be announced publicly right away. No one else in the U.S. Government had had a chance to digest the South Koreans’ report, let alone to do anything remotely resembling policy planning or a careful consideration of options. The White House’s later mixed signals about whether it was attaching preconditions to a summit meeting reflect the unplanned and chaotic way in which the original decision was made.
Trump’s impulsiveness and rejection of institutional support, along with his narcissism and other problematic qualities, make unfavorable outcomes of a meeting with Kim all too easy to envision. Probably the worst possible outcome would be that a meeting that yields nothing the United States could describe as a deal or a win leads Trump to say that now he has tried a peaceful route to denuclearization and so there is no alternative to military force. Jawing could hasten a resort to warring, rather than being an alternative to it.
Orderly policy processes, with full involvement of the relevant bureaucracies, are important not only to guide and rein in an otherwise unguided missile like Trump. They are important to ensure that all relevant interests, hazards, and possibilities are assessed and considered, no matter what sort of person is in the White House.
Consider a past case that has some similarities to the prospective meeting with Kim but that involved a far different breed of decision-maker: Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s. That initiative also excluded the relevant bureaucracy, although the careful thinking of those making the initiative mitigated some of the downsides of the exclusion. While in the political wilderness, Nixon had ruminated at length about great power politics and America’s relationship with the major communist states. His preparation for his China trip included writing down on a yellow legal pad what the United States wanted from the relationship, what the Chinese wanted, and what they both wanted, and using that inventory to assess where there was and was not basis for agreement. His partner in the China initiative, Henry Kissinger, was one of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of U.S. foreign policy.
Even with all that brilliance, avoidance of a normal policy process—including complete exclusion of the Department of State—had its costs. When senior State Department officials finally got to look at what would become known as the Shanghai Communiqué, Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green quickly spotted a problem, having to do with an enumeration of U.S. security relationships in East Asia that omitted any reference to Taiwan. This formulation would have evoked comparisons with Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s infamous speech before the Korean War that appeared to exclude South Korea from a U.S. security perimeter in the region. Correcting the problem at that late stage, after the Chinese side had approved the draft communiqué, was a significant bump near the end of Nixon’s historic visit.
If we need a demonstration of how severe can be the costs to the nation of avoiding a policy process, the outstanding example in recent times is the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The decision to launch the war, notwithstanding the administration’s enormous efforts to sell that decision to the public, was preceded by no policy process at all. There never was a policy options paper, or a discussion in the Situation Room, or any other bureaucratic forum that addressed the question of whether launching that war was a good idea. There were well-grounded perspectives inside (as well as outside) the government that correctly anticipated the mess that would ensue after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but the war-makers ignored them. Had there been a policy process, these perspectives would have been part of that process. And the reasonable conclusion to emerge from the process would have been that initiating such a war would be a big mistake.
The policy challenges that North Korea presents are severe and have vexed several U.S. administrations. The core of the difficulty is that North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent while the rest of the world sees them as a danger and the main problem that needs to be resolved. Any thought of denuclearization necessarily entails an array of big issues including security relationships in East Asia and even reunification of Korea. Proper consideration of these issues requires all the help and input from the bureaucracy and from a policy process that any White House could possibly get.
As the administration scrambles to respond to Trump’s latest impulsive act, there is still time, before any summit meeting occurs, to develop and use a decent policy process. But the decision already made to shoot engagement with North Korea directly to the presidential level both limits the possibilities and amplifies the hazards. As Victor Cha, an expert on Korea who reportedly was in line to become U.S. ambassador in Seoul before he pointed out the unwisdom of a “bloody nose” military strike on the North, observes, the “dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.”