Donald Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was preceded by endless speculation and is now being followed by endless handwringing in some circles and euphoria in others. Those wringing their hands are upset about the alleged vagueness of the summit’s joint memorandum and the non-discussion of a grab-bag of issues including as human rights. Meanwhile, while those who are euphoric—including Trump himself—now believe the U.S. is no longer in imminent danger of being attacked by North Korea’s nuclear weapons so Americans can finally “sleep well.” In reality, both positions are mistaken.
Critics of the summit, and its outcome, allege that Trump gave North Korea’s brutal dictator the prestige of an international extravaganza without exacting any certain concessions. In addition, by stating that U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises will be suspended, Trump made a unilateral concession that threatens the stability of the alliance. Trump made these poor moves, the argument goes, because he's personally obsessed with attention and the wily Kim milked his gullibility for all it was worth. Put succinctly, Trump—in pursuit of his interests—betrayed to some extent both America's national interest and his more general humanitarian duties. Nothing so miffs proponents of this view as Trump's description of Kim as "honorable.”
In contrast, supporters of the summit, Trump foremost amongst them, see Trump as a manly knight in shining armor who, relying on his experience as a brilliant dealmaker, was able to draw the two countries back from a looming—and heretofore inescapable—existential showdown. Trump has gone where no President has gone before, and we’re all better off as a result.
Ironically these extremes commit the same error—they both confuse “objective” and “subjective” elements and consequently distort the nature of diplomacy and international relationships.
Objective refers to an object: something that is solid and real—how things ‘really' are. Subjective refers to the subject: how a person perceives an object. As Werner Heisenberg, Herbert Butterfield, Thomas Kuhn, and John Lukacs have all argued, the two are always intertwined, but even so, some perceptions can and do remain ‘more objective' than others.
Critics of the summit overlook its subjective importance and wrongly apply an objective standard of ‘progress.’ Objective progress on any given issue—nuclear weapons, stability, human rights—is subjectively impossible until a relationship is established with a mutual expectation of reciprocity. Diplomacy is about “mediating estrangement." There are many areas of objective estrangement between North Korea and the U.S. However, as long as both two states are implicitly or explicitly threatening the other's right to exist while simultaneously refusing to talk at a high level, their estrangement is not going to be mediated. Critics who insist on the necessity of significant North Korean concessions as a precondition for negotiations radically misapprehend the relational nature of diplomacy. Recall, for example, that the Cold War grew dangerously warm in the early 1980s and did not begin to cool until Reagan and Gorbachev established a personal relationship informed by mutual respect and trust. It was the bond that they forged that enabled them to jointly “transcend” the Cold War.
What Trump did at the Singapore summit was to recognize Kim's right to exist and negotiate as a quasi-equal. Trump changed the equation from one of subjective antagonism to subjective cooperation. It's as if two people agreed to stop either screaming at or ignoring one another and instead meet, speak civilly, and eventually work out their disagreements. To criticize this initial move for not resolving the many spheres of dispute is to put the cart before the horse.
If Trump's critics misunderstand the subjective side of diplomacy, Trump and his cheerleaders misunderstand the objective side. So far, there's no definite evidence that the cart (i.e., the resolution of nuclear and other issues) will actually follow the horse, as the overblown rhetoric of Trump and his cheerleaders implies. What's more, objectively the actual threat posed to the U.S. by North Korea was—and is—slight. The chance of a dictator obsessed with his security doing something that would certainly result in his own destruction is very low. The real danger on the Korean Peninsula comes from the potential for mistakes, miscalculation, misperception, internal instability, and the irrational escalation of a relatively minor incident. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and talk of a “bloody-nose strategy" likely increased all of these risks. In other words, Trump made the world a more dangerous place because he overestimated the objective danger of the North Korean threat. Alleviating a risk that you helped create is no epochal success.
What both critics and unabashed fans miss is that the Singapore summit was all about the subjective: about creating a relationship, which is a sine qua non for the serious resolution of objective disagreements. It is in this sense that the summit was a success: it opened the door to a maze at the end of which is objective progress. The present challenge is now for the two countries to find their way together across this maze and avoid the many pitfalls that accompany such as journey. Two contributors to The National Interest, Lyle Goldstein, and Doug Bandow, have both proposed practical ways in which the two countries (and perhaps also China) can overcome this challenge. Going forward, scholars and intellectuals would do well to engage with these arguments rather than complain that everything wasn’t solved as a precondition to a four-hour meeting.
Jared McKinney is a Ph.D. Candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Trump and North Korea's Kim meet at the start of their summit in Singapore