The events of the past few days signal a worrying trend for the administration of President Donald Trump: The world will not hold its breath for the United States on issues of international politics and security.
In trying to isolate his targets — Iran and North Korea — what Trump has so far done is push his allies away from the United States and closer to states he views as hostile.
First, North Korea: That the talks in the lead up to the now-cancelled June summit to negotiate Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missiles weren’t going well for the past week was obvious. North Korea balked at comments made by National Security Adviser John Bolton (who called for the “Libya model” of denuclearization) and Vice President Mike Pence (who flat out said North Korea might end up like Libya).
Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi was assaulted with a bayonet and killed in the streets, and the country is on the brink of collapse. Finding these outcomes unappealing, North Korean officials did not show up to a planning meeting with U.S. counterparts, one of the main reasons cited behind the oddly emotional letter Trump addressed to Kim on Thursday as the president announced that he would be the one pulling out of the summit.
The South Koreans, close U.S. allies who have been struggling to keep things on track and de-escalate the tensions Trump kicked up with Kim over the past year, were baffled by the president’s response.
A spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-In said on Thursday that Seoul is “trying to figure out what President Trump’s intention is and the exact meaning of it.” China seemed to be caught off guard as well, issuing a statement on hopes that the diplomatic dialogue would continue.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres was attending a conference on disarmament when he heard of Trump’s decision, and said he was “deeply concerned” over the cancellation and urged the parties to “continue their dialogue.”
Kim responded that he was still willing to talk — he had never really stopped talking to South Korea and China, and had in fact invited journalists to North Korea mid-week to witness the dismantling of a nuclear test site.
Perhaps realizing that he had acted in haste, on Friday morning, Trump told reporters that the summit might still happen. “We’re talking to them now,” he said. He also optimistically tweeted:
Very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea. We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace. Only time (and talent) will tell!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 25, 2018
Whether the summit actually happens and what comes of it remain to be seen. What is certain, however, is that this kind of uneven messaging (demands of a Libyan-style de-nuclearization combined with fawning comments and a bizarre coin, prematurely commemorating the uncertain summit) have sidelined the United States in its own game.
For one thing, the administration doesn’t even seem to value staying on message — Bolton called for the Libya model and Trump contradicted him, on live television, while Bolton stood a few feet away.
Then, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was left to face lawmakers on Wednesday as he appeared before the House Foreign Committee. He said there was “no distinction” between something that was the Libya model of de-nuclearization and something that was not, and said it was up to Kim whether the summit in North Korea would take place.
Trump then contradicted his Secretary of State the very next day by appearing to pull out.
With Iran, however, the administration has been consistent in its stance on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal: It’s unacceptable. The reasons, however, have varied.
President Trump has accused Iran of violating the “spirit” of the deal, even if the U.N. watchdog agency closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear sites insists that Iran has been fully complying with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Then, he said the JCPOA should include Iran’s ballistic missile programs. So the European partners in the agreement (the United Kingdom, France and Germany) tried to address those concerns. But in total violation of the deal, President Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement anyway, leaving the European partners, China, and Russia to work with Iran to save the deal.
On Monday, Pompeo, in his first public policy speech, outlined what the United States wanted out of a potential new deal with Iran — one that the Iranians have no interest in negotiating: In addition to placing new restrictions on its nuclear energy and ballistic missile programs, Iran would also have to stop supporting Hamas, Hezbolllah, and Yemen’s Houthis. It would also have to pull its troops out of Syria and Iraq.
If Iran were to comply, the United States would lift all sanctions, old and new. Iran’s cooperation would also mean that between the United States’ massive military aid program with Israel and huge weapons sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, Washington would be the main proliferator of weapons in the region.
This is a non-starter for Iran. On Friday, Iranian officials met with their European counterparts in Vienna and gave them a May 31 deadline by which to sort out a plan. Given that the United States has threatened to sanction any company doing business in Iran, this will be tough.
But Iran has also said that it will decide to walk away from the deal in the next two weeks.
According to NBC News, one Iranian official said, “I’m sorry to say that we haven’t (seen) the Plan B yet. The Plan B has just started to be figured out.”
And it’s being figured out without the United States, which as of now, is sitting at alone the negotiation table.