As we approach the US-North Korea summit in Singapore, there is much speculation about the potential outcome. Will the US persuade North Korea to lay down its nuclear weapons programme? Will North Korea use the negotiations to incrementally secure resources and gains from the US side while keeping its trump card to the very end? Much speculation on the outcome has also centred around the two men's personalities, since so much of what has been different this time around seems to stem from their personal choices. Certainly, President Trump's personal involvement in the North Korea issue seems unprecedented and was a major factor in the back-and-forth of pre-summit diplomacy that we saw.
Despite this, the US national interests and strategic objectives under President Trump have been broadly consistent with past administrations. Despite North Korea’s accusations that Washington’s "hostile policy" has meant that it desires regime change, the fact is that few American administrations have openly sought regime change on the Peninsula, perhaps realizing that it is too large a can of worms, and has subsequent repercussions for North-South reunification, and could lead to tensions with China. Instead, the US objective from every president since Bill Clinton to Donald Trump has been to push North Korea to denuclearize and in return, to help it develop economically.
A testimony to this can be found in every letter sent to the North by various American presidents. According to a senior official at the time, President George W. Bush promised in his 2007 letter that the US would normalize relations completely with the North if they carried through their disarmament. In his letter – according to then-special envoy Stephen Bosworth – President Barak Obama asserted that "the United States is prepared to work with allies [and] partners in the region to offer…North Korea a different future". In addition to the promises of economic aid, it is highly likely that all US presidential letters to North Korea have made security guarantees to the North; or at least guarantees of the survival of the regime.
In all this, Trump has been no different. But how is he different, and how does this affect the US negotiating style, its normal objectives, and its possible outcomes? If we deal with these one-by-one, we can see that his negotiating style, coming from his background as a real estate mogul, leaves much to be desired in among practitioners of classical diplomacy. It is a maximum pressure approach, which combines close personal relations with disruptive and sudden tactical changes, designed to off-balance his opponent. Despite its unpopularity among many European and American diplomats, the style has a certain resonance with Kim Jong-un, because of the centrality of the leader-as-negotiator. One might say that the historical antecedent for the upcoming meeting in Singapore was the Treaty of Tilsit, where two men – in history France's Emperor Napoleon and Russia's Tsar Alexander – meet one-on-one in a raft on a river and decide the fate of nations. The centrality of the leader in this position has not been a popular one in the history of liberal democracies – for obvious reasons.
So how will this affect the US normal objectives? In The Art of the Deal, Trump argues that thinking big is key, "I like thinking big. I always have. To me, it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big." So, what does this mean? Does this mean that Trump is willing to throw normally-staid US positions to the wind? Is the US troop presence on the Korean peninsula a card? Does Taiwan play a part in persuading China to move behind his deal? Will he bargain away major pieces of the US position in Northeast Asia for the quick win? This is perhaps the most evident fear among both the US foreign policy establishment and among US allies and explains much of the back-and-forth shuttle diplomacy to Washington and Florida by US regional allies. The most famous example of a President nearly bargaining away the national security of his US allies must be that of President Reagan at Reykjavik, who nearly negotiated away US nuclear weapons with an enthusiastic Mikhail Gorbachev, with neither man really considering the fact that China would still be a nuclear weapons state.
If we must predict the outcome of US negotiations in Singapore, we must admit that they will be steered by US national interests – as interpreted by one man, Donald Trump. Obviously, he will have the support and expertise of his national security team, but he will ultimately decide on the US positioning. And the primary question will not be whether he goes for the easy big win – that myth is dispelled by a reading of Art of the Deal which seeks the best deal – but whether he allows for the sort of long-term incremental disarming process that North Korea will undoubtedly request. The longer North Korea has weapons, the better its chances of survival are, and the better its negotiating leverage. And that does not sound like "thinking big". To President Trump, that will sound like "thinking small". And then where will we be?
And the answer to that, will come on June 12th.