It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The swing of events as a result of this week’s summit meetings in Canada and Singapore keeps our heads (and our hearts) on a swivel. The world’s strongest democracies gathered in Quebec at their annual G-7 summit. The body language among the participants seemed frosty, but the President assured us that interpersonal relationships stood at a “10.” However, barely after “wheels up” on Air Force One, President Trump tweeted, reneging on his agreement to sign a joint statement with our allies and childishly labeling Canada’s Prime Minster Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak.”
Forty-eight hours later, in Singapore, President Trump held an historical summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and praised the ruthless dictator as “a funny guy, very smart, a great negotiator who loves his people.” This is the same head-of-state of whom a 2014 UN Report “concluded that the North Korean government was perpetrating ‘unspeakable atrocities’ against its own people on a vast scale and committing ‘widespread, systematic and gross’ violations that amounted to crimes against humanity. The Chair of the Commission called these atrocities ‘strikingly similar’ to crimes committed by Nazi Germany in World War II. Crimes included execution, enslavement, starvation, rape and forced abortion.”
This extraordinary juxtaposition, castigating friends and complimenting foes, upended decades-old alignments and kept foreign policy experts confused, off-balance and fearful on both sides of the Pacific (and the Atlantic). It also led to speculation that the US was poised to shift decades-old alliances, especially when the President announced punitive tariff policy on allies including Japan and Canada; and with his statement—a surprise to both the Pentagon and South Korean military leaders—cancelling joint military exercises with South Korea while expressing the hope of ultimately withdrawing all US forces from the Korean Peninsula.
To be clear, I have long advocated for a world in which military might should not be the primary strategic focus for solving the world’s geopolitical problems. I believe mutual disarmament in all its forms is a positive force for global security. But I also know that planning and preparation are essential ingredients in sustainable peacebuilding. Unilateral decision-making often carries grave, unanticipated risks in the long-term.
The President seemed to gloss over the deeply problematic patterns of North Korea’s human rights abuses, often for purely political reasons. Reports indicate that North Korea has more than 80,000 political prisoners. The UN Report cites crimes against humanity in North Korea that do “not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and arise directly out of “policies established at the highest level of State.” [Keck, Zachary (August 15, 2014) “North Korea to Publish Human Rights Report”; The Diplomat; US archived from the original on October 11, 2014; retrieved August 20, 2015] Once again, we might ask, “where is our moral compass in these interactions?”
So, let’s have a conversation: What is your reaction to these two summit meetings? How do they reflect what you believe to be America’s core values? How important is it to build alliances that defend these values? How do economic realities intersect with security concerns? As individual Americans, how should we respond? Realistically, what can we do to influence these policy shifts?
I confess that I am at a loss to understand this ping-pong approach to US foreign policy. Help me better understand if there is a strategy behind the oscillating tactics the President employed this week with friend and foe alike. I welcome your thoughts as together we move towards a comprehensive strategy for advancing the elusive cause of peace in the world.