On most issues Donald Trump is inconstant, persuadable, bored and eager to move on. But on a few questions there is real consistency across his years as a public eminence. One is his belief, which may give us new steel tariffs, that America is a big loser from the international trade system. Another, which may give us a Trumpian tête-à-tête with Kim Jong-un, is his belief that he alone can solve the problem of nuclear proliferation.
In 1984, near the peak of Reagan-era nuclear fears, he told The Washington Post that he should lead nuclear deal-making with the Soviets. Six years later, he warned Playboy that “the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing [nuclear war] will never happen.” In 1999, flirting with a presidential bid, he promised to “negotiate like crazy” to prevent North Korea from going nuclear.
Now he gets the chance to actually follow through on these boasts (though the chances of a Kim-Trump summit actually coming off are perhaps still somewhat modest). And as with many problems to which Trump is getting the chance to turn his hand, one can doubt his competence and judgment while also doubting the perfect wisdom of the approaches that preceded him.
The dilemma facing American policymakers since the Cold War is that you can have a denuclearizing world or you can have a world where liberal values are always on the march — but you can’t necessarily have both. We have failed to strike a lasting deal with the North Koreans because they are duplicitous and wicked, certainly. But we also have no clear example to offer Pyongyang of a denuclearization that worked out for the authoritarian regime that accepted it.
Where denuclearization has happened successfully, it has generally followed a transition from dictatorship to democracy (as in Brazil and Argentina), been part of such a transition (Ukraine) or been a prelude to regime change (as in South Africa).
These are happy stories for the world, but the fate of the Afrikaner government is not likely to sell Pyongyang on the virtues of giving up the bomb. Nor is the current position of Ukraine, which gave up its nuclear weapons in return for guarantees from Russia and the United States, only to find that guarantee a dead letter in an age of Putinist aggression — which was itself encouraged by the American belief that a stable post-Cold War settlement with Moscow was less important than the expansion of liberal values ever further to the east.
Then there is the case of Iraq. Saddam Hussein failed to achieve nuclear capability, lost a war to the United States that left him partially disarmed, and then despite his weakness was subsequently toppled on charges of possessing W.M.D. that mostly did not exist. Any authoritarian regime observing that history might reasonably conclude that nuclear weapons should be sought and never be given up …
… Especially since our next president decided to tacitly confirm that lesson, by pursing regime change in Libya after the Libyan dictator had agreed to close down his own W.M.D. program. The spectacle of Qaddafi getting murdered by a Libyan mob, however roughly just, was also an object lesson in the downsides of believing that the Americans will care about a W.M.D. deal if the opportunity arises to remove you afterward.
Despite our official commitment to nonproliferation, then, the revealed preference of our foreign policy elite is often for other priorities — NATO expansion, humanitarian intervention, regime change. And even the exceptional case, the Obama White House nuclear deal with Iran, had to be forged despite bipartisan skepticism, in conflict with what President Obama’s aides famously called the D.C. foreign policy “blob.”
Now in fairness to the blob, there are often reasons to prefer other objectives to nonproliferation. The stupidity of the Iraq and Libya interventions doesn’t automatically make the Iran deal a good idea, since it has encouraged both Iran and Saudi Arabia to escalate their non-nuclear struggle for regional power. Similarly, the deal that Kim dearly wants to extract from us — a limited denuclearization in return for our withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula — would probably have disastrous effects for regional security and the larger Pax Americana.
But still, any lasting deal with the paranoid kingdom north of the 38th parallel would have to persuade Pyongyang that we might attack if they keep raising the nuclear ante and that we really don’t care about toppling them otherwise. So it is potentially helpful to our negotiations that Trump combines a temperamental bellicosity with a deep skepticism about the democracy-promoting objectives of U.S. foreign policy over the last 20 years.
This won’t prevent him from bungling things; it shouldn’t make anyone rest easy. It just means that if we are to hope for any progress in these negotiations, we have to place some of that hope in Trump’s most Trumpish qualities, and from his rejection of bipartisan tendencies that have not saved us from this brink.