To hear President Donald Trump tell it, his approach to North Korea and Iran, marked by unpredictability and opposition to the diplomacy and compromise of his predecessors, will end the nuclear programs of both countries once and for all.
Imposing “maximum pressure” on North Korea will persuade it to dismantle its arsenal, Trump has said. And a decision by the United States to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal will, he said last year, “ensure that Iran never, and I mean never, acquires a nuclear weapon.”
But Trump’s actions could convey a very different message to the world than the one he may wish to send.
By pledging to break one nuclear deal just as he enters negotiations for another, Trump risks sending the message that U.S. promises are empty, giving adversaries little reason to make concessions.
By punishing Iran even after it has frozen its nuclear program but agreeing to meet with the leader of North Korea just months after it achieved many of its nuclear ambitions, Trump could inadvertently convey the message that rogue states are best served by defying and threatening the United States.
And by threatening to blow up any deal that does not meet his sometimes inconsistent demands, he may win some concessions at the expense of undermining America’s traditional role as a mediator and convener of negotiations, which Washington has relied on to promote its interests in international forums.
New Narrative About America?
Trump’s stances on Iran and North Korea appear, at first, difficult to reconcile.
North Korea has barreled ahead with its weapons programs, testing nuclear devices as well as long-range missiles that appear capable of striking major U.S. cities. It has achieved what no country has since China developed its own program a half-century ago: a nuclear deterrent against the United States.
To stall or reverse those gains, Trump has issued threats and imposed sanctions on North Korea, but for the most part his responses have not been that different from those of previous administrations. His major break with diplomatic orthodoxy was to agree to a direct meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. The North has long sought such a meeting as a way to portray itself as a peer of the great powers.
Among Korea experts, Trump’s approach has won the greatest support from left-leaning doves.
Iran, meanwhile, has kept its nuclear program frozen and continues to accept international inspections, according to the international watchdogs and U.S. intelligence officials who have repeatedly said the country is complying with its obligations under the nuclear deal signed in 2015.
But Trump has repeatedly threatened Iran and pledged to withdraw from the agreement or impose sanctions that would abrogate U.S. commitments. He has won cheers from hawks on Iran who oppose the deal.
How to square these inconsistencies? Within the United States, the most common explanations draw on Trump’s personality or on domestic politics. Perhaps he opposes the Iran deal because he was not the one to close it, for instance, but he can support a North Korea deal that would bear his signature.
But foreign states do not have the luxury of shrugging off the U.S. president’s thinking as an inscrutable mystery. They must stitch together a narrative with which to predict behavior.
The clearest narrative may be that Americans cannot necessarily be trusted to uphold their commitments — Trump has broken or withdrawn from several other international agreements — but they can be, as Kim showed, coerced and deterred.
The nuclear lessons may be starker.
Dismantle or freeze your program on assurances from the United States, and those assurances may be broken. Accelerate your program in open defiance of international agreements, and the U.S. president will offer to meet with you.
The Costs of Unpredictability
Trump said on the campaign trail that his businesses had succeeded in part because, in negotiations, he had relied on bluffing, threats to walk out and ruthless, zero-sum transactionalism.
He had sometimes refused to fully pay contractors, including those working for his campaign. He sued Deutsche Bank in 2008 to escape $40 million in personal loan guarantees. Confronted with a copy of a tax return suggesting that he had not paid federal income tax in some years, Trump retorted, “That makes me smart.”
He has said he would apply his approach in business to foreign relations, pledging to extract maximum concessions even from allies. Unpredictability and threats would keep other leaders guessing, forcing them to deliver concessions, he said.
Trump would not have to look long for countries that have deployed this strategy: Iran and North Korea have pursued more extreme versions for years.
Still, this approach comes with costs.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week of the nuclear agreement with Iran that “it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat.”
The deal, though signed by several world powers, including China and Russia, hands considerable discretion to Washington over when and how to punish any Iranian cheating. In this way, it highlights the difference between how the world treats countries it considers unreliable, like Iran, versus those seen as steady and transparent.
Should talks with North Korea lead to a written agreement, no one expects its text to treat the United States with the distrust that the 2015 agreement treated Iran.
But it is difficult to imagine America’s allies once again investing Washington with the authority they handed it over Iran.
Trump is asking Washington’s Asian allies to follow his lead on North Korea just as he is defying European allies who are pushing him to stay in the Iran deal. China, which is also a party to the Iran deal, is likely to play a major role in shaping any agreement with North Korea.
Trump administration statements in support of the president’s stance on the Iran deal risk further undermining U.S. efforts with North Korea.
Brian Hook, the State Department policy planning director, told NPR this week that the 2015 agreement signed by Iran and the world powers is “a political commitment by an administration that’s no longer in office.”
The notion that U.S. commitments made by one administration do not constrain those that follow it implies that any deal Trump signs with North Korea is good for only three years if he serves one term, seven years if he wins re-election.
Physical constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, by contrast, last for a minimum of 15 years, which critics like Trump had deemed woefully insufficient.
Leader or Spoiler?
There is a reason the United States has long sought the role of mediator or overseer whenever there is an international crisis, even under a unilateral-minded president like George W. Bush, who convened six-nation talks over North Korea’s nuclear arms program.
The idea was that the United States would forge a consensus among allies and great powers, then use that consensus as the starting point of talks with whatever rogue state was troubling it.
This put the United States at the center of the process, ensuring that it would always have a say. If France or Russia wanted some concession or course correction, it had to go through the Americans to get it.
This state of affairs has required Washington to make frequent compromises to retain the support of other powers for a system anchored to Washington. The United States had to be the rational referee in negotiations, letting other countries issue demands or threaten to walk out.
Increasingly, the United States is the one issuing demands and threatening to blow up negotiations if they do not satisfy Trump’s terms.
This approach does win concessions. European leaders are offering new constraints on Iran.
But it also gives allies and adversaries incentives to go around Americans, rather than put them at the center of everything.
Some analysts expect that if Trump walks away from the Iran deal, the Europeans and Iranians will find some accommodation that excludes him. Washington would lose its leverage over how Iran is held to account.
This week’s inter-Korean summit meeting also hints at declining U.S. influence over negotiations.
The Trump administration has demanded that North Korea “denuclearize” in the sense that the country would immediately and unilaterally surrender its nuclear program. But this week the two Koreas pledged eventual denuclearization of the entire peninsula. Both North and South Korea seem to have ignored Trump’s demands.
In the meantime, Trump shows signs of enjoying his power as international spoiler.
Hours before the inter-Korean agreement was released, Trump wrote on Twitter that he might withdraw U.S. support from any country that “were to lobby against” his bid for the 2026 soccer World Cup tournament.
“Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us,” he asked.