Foreign policy by flattery
The author is CEO of Soft Landing Consulting.
Remember President Theodore Roosevelt’s motto: “Speak softly and carry a big stick”? It now seems as though the U.S. president is speaking big, but quietly crumpling.
Last weekend, we followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ). A handshake with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Joint Security Area may make for a greater photo op, but so what? We were all taken back when the gesture turned out to be more than that — at least on the surface. Earlier, I wondered if Kim would be willing to show given President Moon Jae-in was present along with Trump. Even with Moon modestly positioning himself, it was the first time all three leaders had been seen together, allowing for an informal photo op, as North and South Korea appeared to be on common ground vis-à-vis the U.S. head of state. Trump and Kim then met in a closed session on the south side of the DMZ. That was quite a surprise.
Had we been paying closer attention, we would have seen the tip-offs. During his entire Korea stay, not once did Trump publicly use the word “denuclearization,” although he had no problem dropping the phrase “fake news.”
As we discovered, some of Trump’s team, with John Bolton publically dissenting, began hinting they were ready to live with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons so long as the North stops its nuclear development program. The White House also implied if such an agreement is made, there would be a rollback of sanctions on the North.
This followed the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, which included a private one-on-one meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Prior to the G-20, the United States was pressing its allies to not do business with Huawei over security concerns. Following the G-20, there was a partial about-face. U.S. companies are now once again allowed to sell their components and software to Huawei. High-tech U.S. exporters need Chinese market access. At the same time, U.S. intelligence agencies continued to fret over Chinese network technologies integrating them into the U.S. domestic market should import restrictions be relaxed. With 5G at the cusp and Huawei being a leader in this field, the temptations are great to rationalize that the Huawei chairman would be able to stand up to Communist Party pressure to install espionage backdoors into its products.
Given yet another sudden policy turn, this time following the Trump-Xi talk, senior U.S. politicians, such Senator Marco Rubio and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer have expressed alarm, suggesting they may initiate bills blocking Huawei products from the U.S. market.
Turning to Iran, Tehran has just announced it has exceeded the agreed-upon limits of enriched uranium stockpiles as per the Iran Nuclear Deal Framework that Trump walked away last year. Trump repeatedly described the agreement as “the worst ever.” Why? The deal was limited to nuclear development without stopping ballistic missile improvement and stopping Tehran sponsorship of organizations destabilizing the Middle East. Furthermore, after just 10 years from signing, the centrifuge restrictions would be lifted, allowing Iranians to resume developing their nuclear arms in 2025.
In 2018, Trump walked away from the deal, following private talks with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, even though the Iranians were then in agreement compliance. This week, the Iranians announced they were no longer abiding by the agreement. The Iranians rationalized their decision given the United States is no longer a party to the agreement and the United States had placed new sanctions. In other words, if Trump felt the agreement had been too short with a 2025 term limit, the agreement is now imploding six years earlier.
In other words, Trump is opening the door for the United States and the rest of the world to recognize the North as a nuclear power, China is being allowed to resume trade with the United States and Iran is essentially free to resume development of its nuclear weapons.
To be fair, one may argue that some of these policy reversals may be for the good. It is past time for the world to recognize that the North will not give up its nukes. We can only hope that Pyongyang will unequivocally recognize the legitimacy of the Seoul government. High-tech U.S. companies need Chinese market access if they are to remain competitive. But network professionals worry about the United States taking a step down a slippery slope that may allow Chinese espionage capabilities akin to a Trojan horse into the U.S. networks should U.S. companies be allowed to buy Huawei technologies.
What observers find unnerving is that sudden policy changes follow private negotiations between Trump and other national leaders. Trump is viewed as someone who can be played with flattery. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. When faced with various forms of adulation, Trump becomes overly-friendly, wishing to ingratiate himself with friends and foes alike. Trump has demonstrated an abnormal need to be loved and praised. When Trump was desperately moving his real estate business into Manhattan, he had the reputation for talking tough but often caving in during private negotiations. I fear this master negotiator’s behaviors have not substantially changed. Meanwhile, other national leaders have quickly caught on how to play this U.S. president.