Sun | Jun 16, 2019

Editorial | Did Mr Trump learn anything in Hanoi?

Published:Friday | March 1, 2019 | 12:30 AM

The collapse of the Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un may have been, in the circumstance, the best outcome for the US president as well as an important lesson in his climb up the curve of international diplomacy. He may have finally learnt something about the art of the deal in global negotiations: that the best ones are not usually struck by leaders at gala events under shimmering lights. They are usually the outcome of hard-scrabble give and take by competent professionals. This is the fact that Mr Trump failed to understand when he headed to Vietnam to meet Mr Kim, North Korea’s Stalinist leader’s hoping to reach a deal for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

No common interpretation

At the most basic, there was clearly no common interpretation between the North Koreans and the Americans of the concept. As was the case when both men met in Singapore last June, Mr Trump, in keeping with his egocentric conceit, believed that once he was together with Mr Kim in a room, the South Korean leader would be quickly persuaded to jettison his nuclear arsenal. At this point, notions such as a complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation, pushed by the hard-line establishment, would hardly matter.

Mr Kim, it appears, playing the narcissism of the American president, flattered Mr Trump into this belief but perhaps assumed that given Mr Trump’s wish for a deal, he’d probably accept anything on the table, once it was appropriately packaged, even if it had to be sold as something more than it was. Neither man really understood the other, or, more important, especially for Mr Trump, the context of the Hanoi summit.

The president has suffered swathes of domestic political defeats, including the loss of Congress in the midterm elections, his forced concessions over border-wall funding after the government shutdown, and the awkward revelations and convictions of allies, stemming from Robert Mueller’s investigation in alleged Russian meddling, in support of Mr Trump’s candidacy, in the presidential election. But more critically, on the eve of the Hanoi summit, Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former-Mr-Fix-It-now-turned-enemy, was giving damning evidence about his ex-boss before a congressional committee.

In the circumstance, it would have been difficult for President Trump to bluster his way around any nuclear deal with Mr Kim that the political establishment deemed to be adequate.

Eight months ago, Mr Trump heralded North Korea’s decision to halt nuclear testing in exchange for which the Americans stopped war games with South Korea as a “very, very comprehensive” agreement that would lead to denuclearisation despite the arrangement’s lack of detail or substance.

In Hanoi this week, according to Mr Trump, Mr Kim offered to shut down his Yongbyon nuclear complex, the country’s largest and oldest, for which the Americans would lift economic sanctions. But the Americans insisted that other sites had to be part of any deal, including some, the president suggested, unearthed by US intelligence.

“It was about sanctions, basically,” Mr Trump said at a news conference. “They wanted sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that … . Sometimes you have to walk away, and this was one of those times.”

In other words, no deal would be better than what, from the American perspective, would be a bad deal. Having been drawn from the brink, Mr Trump may have made a good call for America. But he mightn’t have been there if he had employed less hubris and more thought and had appreciated the fact that diplomacy is not conducted on whim, but with hard work.