News analysis

Impetuous foreign policy complicates summit process

Trump's move reflects unilateralist approach to dealing with allies and enemies alike

The wreckage of the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit has shown the limits of the United States President's forceful but often unilateral and even impetuous foreign policy.

Mr Trump, always good at building up events, yesterday tantalisingly dangled the prospect that the meeting could still take place.

Regardless, most pundits, who against their better judgement had been hoping against hope that Mr Trump's unorthodox style would somehow pull off a historic success, remain sceptical given what the US wants - complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea - remains in reality a remote prospect.

"This was a summit entered into impulsively - and if it took place at all, it was going to take place with such radically different views on both sides that it was virtually impossible to see how it could have been successful," Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times.

Mr Max Boot, senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN: "They rushed into the summit, set high expectations, then backed out."

Mr Trump's sudden announcement on Thursday that he was pulling out of the June 12 summit with the North Korean leader has also underlined his unilateral approach.

South Korean President Moon Jae In, who was at the White House just two days earlier - on Tuesday - was not informed beforehand of Mr Trump's letter to Mr Kim on the decision. "The South Koreans are beside themselves; they did not know," said Dr Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow and Korea chair at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies.


US President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae In speaking to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday. Mr Moon was not informed beforehand of Mr Trump's letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announcing his pullout from the June 12 summit. PHOTO: NYTIMES

It was not the first time Mr Trump has left allies flat-footed.

He upset Japan and others by pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He upset European allies by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. He upset Mexico and Canada by threatening to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has imposed or threatened to impose trade tariffs on a range of countries, allies and enemies alike.

"All of these are grounded in an aggressive, unilateralist American foreign policy, a kind of 'I alone can do it' foreign policy," said Dr Altschuler.

Mr Boot told CNN: "Trump is better at breaking deals than making deals."

The episode also underlines just how far apart and prone to misunderstanding North Korea and the US are. Dr Terry said: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Kim Jong Un twice. You would think he would have gotten some clue that this was going to blow up."

Mr Trump may also have misunderstood or overreacted to North Korea's harsh statement the previous day, which appeared to be the last straw for the mercurial President.

The statement seemed directed at talk in Washington of the so-called "Libya model" if North Korea did not make a nuclear deal with the US. In that model, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed in 2003 to terminate his modest nuclear programme, shipping out materials to the US. But later, an uprising against his rule drew Western support and saw him being overthrown and, in 2011, savagely lynched by a mob of rebels.

Talk of this model by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence was always unlikely to go down well in Pyongyang.

"They were trying to signal to Washington that they were very displeased over this talk of Libya, that they are not going to just cave to US pressure," Dr Terry said.

"They wanted the meeting - which is why North Korea released a statement that is measured, tempered and disciplined by North Korean standards."

In reaction to Mr Trump's surprise move, North Korean First Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said in a dispatch via the official KCNA news agency that Pyongyang was willing to sit down with the US "at any time, in any way, to resolve the problems".

Mr Trump, in his letter, also left room for picking up the pieces again. This shows that both sides wanted the summit, said Dr Terry.

In any case, there are concerns now of a high-risk scenario of tightened sanctions enforcement and re-energised military planning.

The ramifications of Mr Trump's pullout will also reverberate across the region.

Notwithstanding egregious broken promises, including Pyongyang officials not showing up for an agreed meeting in Singapore with a White House team, Mr Kim now appears relatively reasonable.

He has also potentially driven a wedge between the US-South Korean alliance, and in his two meetings with China's President Xi Jinping, he may have loosened or weakened political will in China for the implementation of sanctions.

Analysts say China may well assume a greater role, following the humiliation of Mr Moon, who left Washington on Wednesday believing the summit was certain to take place.

But Mr Trump also made the right call to walk away, said Dr Lee Sung-Yoon, professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "For once, let North Korea chase the US," he told The Straits Times.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2018, with the headline 'Impetuous foreign policy complicates summit process'. Print Edition | Subscribe