I like to provide something different here, and this week I need only discuss a major milestone in US foreign policy that is not yet three weeks old, since immigration is now taking up all of everyone's attention. The agreement with North Korea is noteworthy, not only as an episode in the ongoing presidential saga, but as a new chapter in our struggle with nuclear proliferation.
Most people do not realize it, but ever since 1945 the US has had at least a theoretical commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 1946 we presented the Acheson-Lillienthal plan for the control of atomic energy to the new United Nations, but the USSR rejected it. In the late 1950s, fears of fallout from atmospheric tests led to a suspension of atmospheric testing, and in 1963, it was banned by the nuclear test ban treaty. Then, in the late 1960s, we negotiated the nonproliferation treaty with the USSR. In that treaty which most of the world signed, non-nuclear states agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons, while the US, Britain, and the USSR agreed to work to get rid of theirs. In practice, unfortunately, neithe robligaton was fully kept. Although two other nuclear powers--France and China--eventually signed thcle treaty, it did not prevent Israel, India, Pakistan, or North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The collapse of Communism in 1990 convinced many Boomer leaders, including neoconservatives, that history was on our side and that we had no reason to worry about international agreements. The Clinton Administration did reach an agreement with North Korea to halt its nuclear program. But the Bush II Administration came to power determined to rule the world, and wrote a new National Security Strategy in 2002 declaring that the United States would not allow hostile nations to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It backed away from the agreement with North Korea, refused an offer of a deal from Iran, and went to war with Iraq. It turned out that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program any more and no chemical weapons, and the invasion evidently convinced North Korea and Iran--whom the Bush administration planned to defeat as well--that they might need nukes to presere their regimes. Bush II had to back off a bit after the disaster of the Iraq war, and the Obama Administration tried to adopt a different foreign policy. But it maintained the principle that other nations could only have nuclear weapons if we agreed, and Obama repeatedly declared that Iran must not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.
In 2015 the US government, together with Russia, China, and the EU, reached a remarkable agreement under which Iran stopped enriching uranium, with strict inspections and safeguards. Washington lifted sanctions in return. An alliance of the Israeli government and the Republican Party tried and failed to stop the agreement from going into effect, but Donald Trump campaigned against it and drew a lot of conservative Jewish support, although only a minority of Jewish voters. The President denounced the agreement this spring and seemed committed to regime change in Iran, instead--which he has no recipe for achieving.
North Korea, meanwhile, began testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Trump threatened to destroy them. Then, under heavy pressure domestically from the Mueller investigation, the President reversed himself and agreed to meet Kim Jong-Il. His new National Security Adviser,John Bolton--who had plotted war against North Korea under George W. Bush--was evidently unhappy and convinced the President to back down. But new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo felt otherwise, and the meeting has now been held.
President Trump had nothing to do with the negotiation of the agreement itself. The American team contented itself with a North Korean pledge to "work for" the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula, without any specific commitments of its own at all. Having withdrawn from an agreement with Iran that had real safeguards, Trump concluded a new agreement with North Korea, which already has nuclear weapons, that has none at all. In his fantasy world, which he immediately shared with the American people as usual, we can depend on Kim now because of the relationship Trump has established with him. In practice Kim has scored a big victory with his own people and will soon face the US with a choice of admitting we were wrong to trust him, or pretending, as Trump already has, that we no longer have anything to fear from his weapons. Meanwhile we have backed away slightly from our long alliance with Seoul, canceling joint military exercises and hanging them out to dry the way President Nixon did the Japanese over China in 1971.
Trump might be paving the way for the US to accept the reality that North Korea is now an invulnerable nuclear power. To the extent that the President might actually have a foreign policy strategy--and I am certainly not convinced that he does--it seems to involve trusting strongmen like Kim, Xi, Putin, and others, while destructing democracies comitted to traditional American values. It is not clear that Pompeo, Bolton, or James Mattis shares this goal, although Pompeo might, and Bolton might be won over for the sake of his own power and glory. It is hard to see, however, how such a strategy can benefit either the American people or the world at large. Meanwhile, the President reportedly has adopted the goal of regime change in Iran. That looks every bit as hard as disarming North Korea. It is possible, however, that the President will revert to various forms of denial when that does not work out, just as he has over North Korea.
The guiding principle of US foreign policy today is that Donald Trump's personality, his proclaimed (but nonexistent) negotiating skill, can fix anything. Since it can't, that leaves us without policy or strategy. On trade the President is pushing ahead despite real negative consequences, setting the stage for another reckoning with reality at some point. The world will, in many ways, go its own way while Trump is President and I can hardly blame it. It is now up to western Europe, which has plenty of political problems of its own, to try to keep the values that animated US foreign policy for 75 years alive.