Trump Withdraws from the North Korea Summit: Now What?

A coin intended to commemorate the North Korea deal
A newly released, ill-fated commemorative coin. Source:

Regularly, on the campaign trail, President Trump promised to disrupt Washington politics. In a rare move, it would seem he undersold himself. His snap decision to withdraw from the proposed June 2 summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea has birthed disruption on a global scale. Disruption, confusion, and shock.

The cancellation was classic Trump – equal parts muddled, brash, and careless. He hinted at it two days prior, enigmatically intoning that “we’ll see what happens”, and that there was “a very good chance” it would all come to nothing. And then, two hours ago, nothing was come to – arrived at thanks to an open letter by Mr Trump to Mr Kim, which declared that the meeting would be “inappropriate” thanks to North Korea’s displays of “tremendous anger… in [their] most recent statement” (said statement being a pointed rebuttal of Vice President Mike Pence’s invocation of “the Libya model”). A press conference followed, and more contradictions with it.

“A lot of things can happen”, assured Mr. Trump. “Including the fact that, perhaps, it’s possible the existing summit could take place, or a summit at some later date… Nobody should be anxious. We have to get it right.” In the meantime, of course, there would be “very strong sanctions”, together with military chest-puffing – “we are more ready than we have ever been before”. The overall sentiment was this:
“This meeting couldn’t happen because North Korea has been rude. That naturally doesn’t rule out the possibility of future meetings, which would be lovely. Alternatively, of course, war is always an option. Cheerio!”

Three immediate and necessary questions are hereby raised:

  1. How did we get here?
  2. Whose fault is the withdrawal?
  3. Where do we go now?

Let us begin at the beginning.

How did we get here?
If any sort of peace process does emerge from this mess, the real hero will not be Donald Trump, but sport. Prospects of talks began with a New Year’s address by Kim Jong-Un, which floated the possibility of a North Korean delegation at the Seoul Winter Olympics. As much was agreed upon a week later at the first set of bilateral talks in three years. With Spring came a timely diplomatic thaw, and on March 6 Kim floated the possibility of denuclearisation talks with the United States. Two days later, President Trump agreed.

On March 27, Kim Jong Un met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. We shall return to that date later. Next came two meetings between Mr Kim and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and, on April 20, the announcement that North Korea no longer wished (or needed) to carry out nuclear tests. All seemed set for a historic moment.

Then John Bolton happened. On April 29, the national security advisor appeared on Face the Nation and invoked “the Libya model” of total disarmament as the essential goal behind any negotiations. This infuriated North Korean officials, who recalled a different Libyan model – that being 2011’s “how to publicly kill a dictator, featuring sodomy-by-baton” – the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Furious diplomatic responses escalated tensions, particular when Vice President Pence made the same invocation, and was called a “political dummy” in reply. The next day, the meeting was off.

Who’s fault is the withdrawal?
At first glance, the blame would lie almost entirely with the President Trump. First glance is, of course, probably right in this case, but it’s worth examining the withdrawal in greater detail.

First, North Korea’s aggression. Mr Trump implied that the DPRK’s harsher tone was the result of coaxing by Chinese President Xi Jinping, following the aforementioned March 27 meeting. Obviously, it’s impossible to know for sure what was said between Messrs Xi and Kim, but persuasion of the kind Trump refers to seems unlikely.

Brian Wong, a Hong Kong native and Vice-President of Economists Without Borders – Oxford, finds it implausible that Mr Xi interfered. Firstly, they say, because the Chinese President wishes to minimise instability on China’s North-East, and secondly because he wished to pivot away from the Korean peninsula and on to greater affairs.

This sentiment is echoed by Dr Hyun Bang Shin of the LSE, who argues that the confrontational North Korean remarks don’t represent “anything new”, but rather a longstanding “geopolitical tactic” which should have been expected. He attributes them firstly to the repeated invocation of the Libya model, and secondly to North Korean angst over ongoing military drills in the South – drills which included F-22 fighter jets and very nearly included B-52 bombers. The latter were withdrawn after the North complained that they were “a provocation”.

Dr Shin described the Libyan allusion as “a great insult” to North Korea, whom he characterised as pursuing a Vietnam-style transition model, wherein the communist party maintained power whilst opening their nation up to the world. He believes that in comparison to this fracas and the tensions which sprung up from training exercises, President Trump’s theories about Xi Jinping have “low credibility”.

Where do we go now?
The summit’s cancellation is a blow to hopes for global nuclear deproliferation. Mr Trump’s flirtatious attitude to nuclear weapons is on display in his letter, where, in between passages of wistful regret, he reminds Mr Kim “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” In his subsequent press conference, the President returned to the possibility of military intervention if necessary. Of such conflict, Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at MIT, told Vox “Make no mistake, that would mean attacking a nuclear weapons power, and someone in the region or even in the United States may eat a nuke.”

When asked whether China may enter the game as a moderating force, Brian Wong deemed it unlikely. They said Mr Xi would “keep Kim ‘tame’”, but outlined that, as his goals regarding North Korea centred on maintaining a status quo of small skirmishes and low-level tension so as to encourage dependency on China, there was little incentive to pick up where America had left off.

Dr Shin is yet more uncertain about what lies next. When asked he admitted to still being “a bit shocked”, before opining that the strongest onus now lay on the shoulders of South Korean President Moon Jae-In. He had been a central mediator, and still enjoys the support of the South Korean people, who had rallied behind his commitment to signing a peace treaty with the North.

President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all repeated that a later summit remained on the table. But this ghost of a promise withers in the light of today’s events. The optimism of early 2018 has vanished from the table, and has been replaced by confusion and angst and bruised egos. The immediate fate of the Korean peninsula is uncertain. Its long term fate doubly so. Mr Trump closed his letter by remarking that “This missed opportunity is truly a sad moment in history.” Yes, Mr. President. So it would seem.


Read my article on what Donald Trump’s election meant in 2016 here.

The Conch Shell Shatters

Originally published 13 December 2016


Fighting for democracy in the age of Trump

So this is how liberty dies.

“I want to be a President for all Americans.”

If not for the emotional exhaustion of the past year, it might have been funny.
For Donald J. Trump – bully; racist; grabber of pussies of pussies; mocker of the disabled; a man who thinks building casinos is comparable to losing one’s son in war –  to speak of unity is so ironic that one expects Alanis Morisette to blare from the nearest set of speakers.

But perhaps that was the trouble – we laughed too much. It is now clear that liberals world-over vastly underestimated American malcontent.

The question of why Trump won will be puzzled over for decades to come. In a talk on “Global Trumpism”, Martin Blythe argues that the same economic conditions which birthed Golden Dawn in Greece have loosed Trump upon America. The state-driven decimation of the working classes throughout the developed world bears much blame for today’s populist backlash.

The great irony is that no matter what Trump promises, those jobs cannot be brought back. It will always be cheaper to manufacture overseas than in America, and tariffs cannot halt mechanisation. Instead, Trump, whose Republican congress wishes a moratorium on regulation and fiscal spending, will usher in an age where the government does even less to help its poorest citizens, while scapegoating minorities to maintain “unity”.

Trumpism, then, is not the answer. It is the rose-spectacled yearning for an economic era now functionally beyond reach. It is also the return of open and ghastly racism. But, above all, it is the shattering of traditional democratic norms.


All you have to do is follow the worms

Trump’s election has upturned our understanding of how democracy works. During his campaign he cheerfully violated every electoral convention – courting the Klan; mocking the disabled; open racism – these “gaffs” alone should have rendered him unelectable; to say nothing of his overwhelming opposition from the nation’s newspapers. Trump’s economic policies, they rightly pointed out, were incoherent on an unprecedented level. He literally lied more than he told the truth; considered trade as a boxing match; and promised horrors the presidency is (thankfully) incapable of (for instance, “opening up” libel laws – no such laws exist on a federal front).

But none of this mattered to the people who voted for him. Why? Well, in desperate economic circumstances it makes sense that they’d happily ignore his flaws if they thought a candidate would at last listen to them, but the real answer runs deeper.

The OED has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. The term is an apt description of today’s world. While people have voted on intuition rather than facts for decades now, what makes the post-truth world unique is that politicians now campaign on this basis –  relying not on facts, but on what feels true – that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim who founded IS; or that Hillary Clinton has murdered dozens of subordinates. These claims are reinforced by a media climate which panders to echo chambers and falsehoods – Facebook is the largest source of news for most Americans, but as it produces no media, it claims no fourth estate responsibility.

There is a culture of “news” pages on the left and the right which routinely and unashamedly publish falsehoods. These stories pander to people’s suspicions about the world and, thus (as it’s a biological fact – confirmed by dopamine levels – that the human brain prefers “facts” which reaffirm its convictions to those which challenge it) they are inimitably shareable.

Couple that with a climate where the traditional media is considered perennially dishonest (a claim repeated by Trump himself) and the stage was set for an election where his tax returns or allegations of sexual assault simply did not matter, as his supporters sooner believed his Tweets than the Washington Post.

Where, then, does that leave those of us who believe that facts should matter in democracy?


Shall We Overcome?

The path to victory against Trumpism is steep and multifaceted. The first and most critical step is galvanising political involvement. If the 41% of eligible Americans who stayed home on election day had instead turned out to vote, Hillary Clinton would likely have won. If Democratic voters were as routinely motivated as Republican ones, not only would the senate be blue-er, but local policies which have allowed Republicans to maintain unrepresentative support (voter ID laws; gerrymandering) would not have passed. This principle applies across the post-truth world: Only by opposing regressive policies at every turn can we kill them in the crib.

The next step is to rebuild an empathetic political culture. The victories of globalisation (which are, let’s be clear, huge – over a billion people lifted out of extreme poverty in the last twenty years is not to be sniffed at) have allowed us to forget those who are left behind. Rural America feels, accurately, that its urban neighbours have forgotten it; while manufacturing workers see themselves as the last of a dying breed. The cures for these maladies are not to be found in Trumpism, but in a greater emphasis on retraining programmes (on which America spends a pittance) and, most of all, in a political culture which values such perspectives.

Equally valuable are the perspectives of minority groups. To Kill a Mockingbird remains among the most important books in American history because it unmasked racism to people who had chosen to ignore it. Similar jolts to middle America are required now. Make no mistake, artists from minority backgrounds have been telling extraordinary stories of their experiences for many years now – from Do the Right Thing to Transgender Dysphoria Blues – but the burden lies with “liberal allies” in power to share such testimony. A staggeringly high number of Trump supporters have simply never met a Muslim. When shown human experiences, empathy will, in most cases, overwhelm exclusion.

Finally, fake news must be fought. Facebook employees have set up a taskforce to monitor and dismantle false stories on the site. This is an important but minor step – it would be wise to lobby the company to take an official stand thereon. Facebook can no longer pretend it has no fourth estate obligations. 2016 has proven that it does.

These steps seem daunting, if not impossible. It is easy to assume that in our bifurcated political sphere, all attempts at outreach are futile. This is not true. Grassroots political work can mitigate Trumpism’s damage. If Facebook tackles fake news, its largest platform will be removed. Respecting blue collar voices will keep them from resorting to racism. And while we might not reach sexteganarian Trump supporters who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, their grandchildren are statistically likely to be on our side. And even if they’re not, minds can be changed – just look at the modern consensus on marriage equality.

Donald Trump does not respect democracy. He considered a fair loss impossible; played fast and loose with the obligations of the US Constitution; and peddled conspiracy theories designed to undermine the rationality of voters. His underhanded tactics have won him an election. But he has not yet won the war.

If those who stand against his demagoguery and falsehoods do so openly and consistently, the fight for liberal democracy may yet be won. But the battle must be hard fought. We have far too much to lose.