With smiles and handshakes and words of mutual warmth, President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un entered the history books in Singapore on Tuesday as the first sitting leaders of their countries ever to meet face to face. Whether their summit turns out to be a truly historic event depends much more on what comes next.
The United States and the world community have tried before to rein in North Korea. Three recent presidents were parties to agreements in which North Korea pledged to halt its nuclear activity. In each case, the commitments crumbled, the promises proved meaningless, and North Korea continued its steady march toward acquiring nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them across the Pacific Ocean.
Trump and Kim have embarked on a dramatically different approach, eschewing the bottom-up process of the past for a top-down start that the president suddenly and surprisingly agreed to when offered by the North Koreans. But the Singapore summit is only the opening, a first step in what could be lengthy and difficult negotiations between the two nations.
Summit meetings are a combination of symbolism and substance.
The president is counting on his personal skills to convince Kim that abandoning North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and the security it provides him, is in his country's and the world's best interests.
To do so will require discipline and commitment that has not been part of Trump's foreign-policy tool kit. And he must resist the kind of impetuousness he displayed on his way to Singapore when he abruptly withdrew U.S. support for a joint communique negotiated with other nations at the Group of Seven meeting in Canada. His pique at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's post-meeting news conference created a rupture in relations with America's closest allies.
Summit meetings are a combination of symbolism and substance. That the president had flown halfway around the world to meet the ruthless dictator of a nuclear-armed nation alone spoke volumes symbolically. That Kim would reverse course after a flurry of provocative missile launches early in Trump's term to engage in diplomacy also symbolized the change in the climate.
All that freighted with significance the moment of their first greeting. As Trump and Kim greeted each other on a red carpet with the flags of the two nations as their backdrop, the world watched in anticipation. After the earlier insults and incitements, there was no way to overstate the stakes — and worldwide hopes for an easing of tensions — involved in putting Trump and Kim in the same room together, joined only by their translators.
Neither Trump nor Kim appeared stiff or reticent as the two men walked toward each other, arms outstretched for a first handshake. They did not smile for their first formal photograph, but immediately afterward, as they began to walk along a portico, they loosened considerably, and both smiled more broadly. "We will have a terrific relationship," Trump told reporters after the two men were seated.
That was classic Trump, as was his "very, very good" response to a shouted question from CNN's Jim Acosta when the two men finished their one-on-one and headed to a bilateral meeting with their advisers. Cameras followed them from one meeting to another, giving the world glimpses of their body language. In a made-for-TV moment, Trump got the kind of public-relations extravaganza he wanted, but without any real hint of the substance of the conversations.
The record from history long ago etched a handful of summits in collective memory: the Yalta Conference of 1945 among Franklin D. Roosevelt, Britain's Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin, which shaped the postwar world; the summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986 between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which seemed to end in failure but eventually paved the way for a later arms agreement; the personal diplomacy of Jimmy Carter as he negotiated peace between Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978; the brutal encounter between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961 that left the young president shaken and may have emboldened the Soviet leader to put missiles in Cuba.
Whether Singapore will be remembered as the beginning of a success or the start of another dead end with the North Koreans will not be written for months, if not years. Many people have pointed as a possible parallel to Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China and his meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong, which produced a thaw between the two nations after two decades of hostile relations.
But historian Margaret MacMillan, who chronicled that trip in her book "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World," noted that Nixon's journey began with far less uncertainty than surrounds the Trump-Kim summit.
The North Korean leader already has gotten what his predecessors did not, which is a meeting with the president of the United States.
"A lot of the groundwork had been done before he got there, and the goals were more modest," she said. In that case it was to start on a path toward establishing diplomatic relations, which were not completed until after Nixon left office. "Denuclearization is much, much more difficult than establishing diplomatic relations," she added.
Historian Robert Dallek, noting parallels and differences between the 1972 Nixon visit and this week's events, said, "We weren't going to ask them the Chinese to change governments or cut back on developing armaments of any kind." The Trump administration is not pushing for regime change in North Korea; to the contrary, the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have sought to assure Kim that this is not the goal of these talks.
The risks for both Trump and Kim are significant, although the North Korean leader already has gotten what his predecessors did not, which is a meeting with the president of the United States. But he wants and needs more.
Bill Richardson, who was ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, said the very fact of the summit was a win for North Korea "because it illustrates the stature of Kim as a world figure and helps him domestically." But he added that Trump's decision to accept a meeting "is worth the risk" — if there is an agreement. "Negotiating with North Korea from the bottom to the top doesn't work," he added, referring to the approach of previous administrations. "Maybe top-to-bottom will work."
Trump has said many times he is prepared to walk away from negotiations with North Korea if he concludes that Kim is not serious about denuclearization. But failure is not in the interests of either leader. Trump would like to show that he can accomplish what other presidents before him, particularly his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, have failed to do.
Wendy Sherman, a former State Department official with experience negotiating with North Korea and Iran, said the young Kim will want to find a way to stay in power for a long time. But he is under pressure to build the economy of his impoverished nation and open up to the rest of the world without putting his country at risk or himself in jeopardy. Trump wants a big foreign-policy success that he could use to help in his campaign for reelection in 2020. "There's a potential that interests align," Sherman said. "But it's still very, very tough."
The first handshakes and smiles set a tone for the rest of the day's meetings. Symbolism is importance, but the substance is everything.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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