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Trump and Kim: Shades of Reykjavik

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Quotes of the week:

“The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I: never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.” — Peggy Noonan

“The nation’s strategic interests have been taken for a surrealistic ride on a summit roller coaster.” – Alexander Haig

“Both leaders went to Reykjavik looking for a public relations coup. One succeeded; the other lost his head.” – Thomas Schelling

Nuclear summits have had their odd couples. None will be odder than Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Until now, the strangest pairing had been Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. They had nothing in common – except their impatient, risk-taking natures and dislike of nuclear weapons. The first trait was widely recognized; the latter wasn’t initially understood. Instead, the Cognoscenti operated on the twin assumptions that hard-core Republican anti-communists like Reagan were fans of nuclear arms racing, and that any product of the Soviet system, including Gorbachev, couldn’t possibly be a real change agent. Nor did America’s Kremlinologists grasp what Secretary of State George Shultz intuited: that Gorbachev had more reason to be impatient than Reagan because he recognized that the Soviet economy was tanking.

After Reagan’s first administration, in which nuclear negotiations were characterized by playing to the galleries, one-sided proposals, walkouts and threats, both Gorbachev and Reagan were ready for something completely different. In a private message, the Kremlin’s bold new leader suggested tackling nuclear dangers mano a mano. In a somewhat out of the way place. Absent hangers on and filters.

The Commentariat had fits over Reykjavik. There were only three weeks to prepare after Gorbachev’s surprise invite. And prepare for what? A getting-to-know-you meeting? This could be manageable. It was what the Reagan administration and the U.S. intelligence community expected. Instead, Gorbachev came bearing detailed proposals to break the back of the nuclear arms race.

This was the U.S. nuclear enclave’s nightmare scenario. Reagan could go dangerously off the reservation when operating solo and was notoriously dismissive of details. He held only the most elementary grasp of the workings of nuclear strategy; what he knew for sure was that nuclear deterrence was morally abhorrent. If Gorbachev wanted to tear the edifice of mutual assured destruction down and pursue abolition, Reagan was all for it – as long as his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative remained in place as an insurance policy.

Nothing was decided at Reykjavik, which the Punditocracy, taking its cues from the drawn faces of the departing Reagan and Gorbachev, widely deemed to be a failure. As details of the roller coaster ride in Hofdi House became available, the U.S. and Soviet nuclear enclaves breathed mutual sighs of relief that consideration of zero options, deep cuts, and dangerous inroads against deterrence orthodoxy were averted. In actuality, Reykjavik turned out to be a major turning point. The ice was broken and couldn’t be re-frozen, facilitating the negotiation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and deep cuts for strategic offensive forces.

It’s worth bearing in mind the high-wire act of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit over the next two months in the run-up to the Trump-Kim meeting. Assuming the meeting happens — as I think it will, as show boaters love the klieg lights – we will be awash in cautionary commentary. Beware of traps and being taken to the cleaners. Trump is utterly unprepared for this encounter and doesn’t do homework. A face-to-face could make confrontation and warfare more likely. Alliances can be badly shaken. Trump has no clue about the art of the deal. Trump will be unable to get what he (and previous U.S. administrations) wants.

The New York Times’s editorial page is positively inclined but worried. The Washington Post editorial page’s endorsement is more conditional:

“If it becomes evident that the North is unwilling to commit to a freeze on its nuclear and missile activities, or will make excessive demands in exchange, Mr. Trump can step back. What he should not do is walk blindly into an encounter with a dictator who, we can be sure, will be well-prepared to take advantage of this president’s well-known weaknesses — starting with his penchant for impulsive decisions.”

If Reykjavik teaches us anything, it is to be wary of the Commentariat’s predictions and breathless post-summit analysis. Every cautionary concern about this summit is valid, but deeply packed ice will nonetheless be broken when Trump and Kim meet. And what then? A wide range of outcomes is possible, including the continuation of the status quo. The clearest outcome will only become apparent with the passage of time.

As with the summit at Reykjavik, what matters most about the Trump-Kim encounter is reducing nuclear dangers and dampening the drumbeat of war. It would surely help if Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson deputized much needed help to steer in this direction. If Trump is unable to contribute positively, as with the Iran nuclear deal, leadership to shape downstream consequences in helpful ways will have to come from others.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on March 12, 2018. 

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