US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said US President Donald Trump and his administration were in Singapore to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a mission of peace.
It is a historic meeting, the US President’s team kept reminding observers on Monday, as Trump met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and spoke to other leaders in Asia ahead of the Singapore summit.
If Trump is successful, the meeting will resonate far beyond the three countries involved, and is of importance for the Middle East.
Trump’s meeting with the leader of the country often described in superlative terms regarding its secrecy and brutality – the “hermit kingdom” – has caused contretemps and controversy, but it is also being watched closely for what comes out of it. If Trump brings home more than just lip service and North Korea actually dismantles its nuclear program, the summit will be seen as a success.
But the mere fact that it’s happening is a major change in US policy. Bill Clinton met Kim Jong Il in 2009 after he had left office, but no US president has ever met a serving North Korean leader.
The lack of such encounters have resulted in differing views on whether the meeting is proper and sends the right message. Al-Jazeera has a piece noting “how 11 US Presidents failed to make peace with North Korea,” while The Washington Post asks: “When do presidents meet with dictators?” These seem to be the wrong questions. US presidents historically have often met with dictators and authoritarian or monarchist regimes. And it’s not clear if the lack of peace with North Korea is Washington’s fault as much as it is the fault of the Pyongyang regime’s aggressive policies.
So what’s the message being sent in Singapore? Here are a few takeaways.
Trump has based his foreign policy not only on doing the opposite of his predecessor Barak Obama, but on reversing years of US foreign policy establishment status quo. In many cases this has involved calling the bluff of opponents, whether it was bluffs about Palestinian violence over the embassy move or Iran’s threat of “war” over the Iran deal. With the North Koreans, the bluff has been their claims of having developed better missiles and nuclear weapons.
The usual US policy with North Korea has alternated between carrots and sticks, with Washington treating Kim Jong Un as an annoying, spoiled kid to be cajoled and bribed. Giving the North Koreans the respect of summit participation gives them legitimacy, but it also seeks to change the rules of the game with Pyongyang. Whether that works or just whets their appetite for more shenanigans on the Korean peninsula is unclear. It does seem clear that neighbors of North Korea prefer a climb-down in US threats, since they stand to suffer more in any conflict.
Trump has preferred to pivot away from America’s European allies toward Asia – which includes the Middle East. It means Washington now sees Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Seoul as more important than Berlin or London.
In many ways, this pivot to Asia has been a long time coming in US foreign policy. There have been no shortage of books on the “Asian Century” predicting that rising economies such as China or India are where the future is, rather than declining western powers. Groups like the G7 are still very much Western clubs, despite the changes in economics and power that this century portends.
The question is whether this is really part of a US administration worldview or just because Trump is widely loathed in Europe and tends to find support and welcome in Asia and the Middle East. When it comes to the Middle East, the answer is clear. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Jerusalem all feel more secure with a direct line to Washington and a feeling that the administration takes their concerns seriously.
There is a North Korean connection to the Middle East as well – in the form of its nefarious attempts to sell or transfer nuclear technology to pariah nations. This includes allegations that it shipped items via the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan to Libya and that it helped build the secret nuclear reactor in Syria which Israel destroyed in 2007. North Korea has also been linked to Iran and Hezbollah.
So there is a very real desire by Jerusalem to have North Korea clip its own wings in terms of working with enemies of Israel.
If the Trump administration, which is a close ally of Israel, can tamp that down, it will be in Israel and the region’s interests in terms of curtailing the Syrian and Iranian regime.
Trump has never pushed for a “democratization” agenda the way previous administrations did. He has preferred one-onone diplomacy with leaders of various regimes, whether meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah soon after taking office, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Contrast those meetings with the treatment the G7 received just before the Singapore summit.
The main message appears to be that under this US administration there is no reward for being a Western democracy.
This has received opprobrium from commentators arguing that the US has ditched its traditional Western allies.
Trump administration officials would point out that whereas the Obama administration appeared to work closely with those allies, it also worked to cultivate dictators in Tehran and Havana to reverse decades of US policy.
The question is what message the Trump policy sends. Does it say that whatever lip service was paid to human rights and democracy under the last administration, has now ended? The answer may be moot because authoritarian regimes have been on the march for the last decade, and this shows no sign of abating – whether or not the US talks about democracy or prefers to sit down with dictators.