Donald Trump set World Peace in his sights this week as he welcomed home three Americans who had been held captive in North Korea, and who were released into American custody during a meeting between North Korean President Kim Jong-un and Trump’s new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The President thanked the Korean dictator — who he had spent much of the past year ridiculing on Twitter — praising him as an excellent and honorable man, and announced that the two would meet in Singapore in June where, as he tweeted out later, “We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!”
Should Donald Trump succeed in his summit with Kim, and win an agreement to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile capabilities, it will be widely viewed as an achievement of titanic proportions. It was, after all, Trump’s predecessor and nemesis, Barack Obama, who suggested that dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat loomed as the greatest challenge that Trump would face as President. For center-left Americans, whose disdain for Trump knows few limits, and for Europeans who have just seen one more rebuke from the American President in the form of the abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s achievement — should it come to pass — would be a bittersweet moment. But none would be more torn between their relief at the resolution of the North Korean threat and their distaste for the man on whose watch it transpired than the members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who would have no choice but to award the Peace Prize to Trump.
Lost in the drama of the North Korea prisoner release this week and the pending summit meeting between Trump and Kim is the enormity of the changes in global strategic relationships whirling below the surface. European leaders, who hoped that much of Donald Trump’s isolationist America First campaign positioning would soften once he was in office have been disappointed. He said he would walk away from the Paris climate agreement, and he did. He promised to walk away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, and he did. He promised to demand that NATO allies increase their defense spending, and he has. He promised to demand changes to global trade relationships, and he has. He promised to reject the Iran nuclear deal, and this week — to the consternation of our erstwhile European allies — he did. Importantly, much of Trump’s isolationist positioning reflects a growing discomfort among the American electorate, including Bernie Sanders supporters on the left as well as among the Trump base. According to Pew Research, over the past half-century, Americans have become steadily less supportive of the country’s global role and obligations, a sentiment reflected in Trump’s MAGA rhetoric.
For nations with their own regional ambitions — notably China and Russia — Trump’s willingness to pull the United States back from its leadership role in the world has been a welcome change. Russia and China in particular have long chafed at American hectoring of their anti-democratic political systems, as well as its military encroachment on what each sees as their historical and rightful spheres of influence. Both countries were signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, but while each expressed official disappointment in Trump walking away from the deal, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping recognized that every action that Trump takes to distance America from the world ultimately inures to their benefit. For example, in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iran accord, China committed to continuing its imports of Iranian oil, and announced that it will pay for Iranian oil in yuan — the Chinese currency — rather than dollars. This provides a strategic benefit to China, as establishing the yuan as a global reserve currency alternative to the dollar is an important long-term goal of the country.
In the Middle East, where the United States has been the dominant power since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, Vladimir Putin has pushed — with Donald Trump’s support — to restore Russia’s historic role as a force in the region. The success of Putin’s efforts was evident this week as the simmering conflict between Israel and Iran burst into open military conflict. Prior to launching a counterattack against Iranian forces in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to consult with Putin, to make sure that Israeli actions would not run afoul of what the Russian potentate would understand to be appropriate defense of Israel’s national interests.
Similarly, the growth of nationalist movements across Europe — aided in no small measure by Russian information operations — has enabled Putin to reassert Russian influence in countries that only a few years ago pleaded for membership in NATO to escape influence from Moscow. Nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not alone in gravitating toward Putin, both in recognition of Hungary’s dependency on Russia for 80% of its energy supplies, as well as Putin’s greater tolerance of Orban’s authoritarian inclinations.
The North Korea situation should similarly be viewed against the backdrop of China’s determined efforts over the past several years to push back against American power in East Asia, exemplified by China’s military buildup in the South China Sea and Xi Jingping’s “Asia for Asians” efforts to bring its Asian neighbors into a common strategic alliance against western, former colonial powers. It may well be that China is pushing North Korea to make a deal with the United States — as many people assume — out of fear of Trump’s trade threats, as well as the prospect that Trump might actually attack North Korea. On the other hand, China may see the North Korea nuclear negotiations as an opportunity to pursue its own strategic objective of removing American forces from East Asia. It is notable that before this March, Xi Jingping and Kim Jong-un had never met face to face, but since the prospect of a summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump became real — and Kim suggested the removal of American troops from the Korean peninsula as a quid pro quo for the dismantling of his nuclear program — Kim and Xi have met two times. Removing or reducing the footprint of American forces from South Korea, and, in so doing, rolling the U.S. military presence in the region back to its last Asian foothold in Japan, would be a major achievement for Xi, removing a major obstacle to China’s growing political and military dominance in the region.
While a deal with North Korea that included the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea would have been dismissed out of hand by any of Donald Trump’s predecessors, he has already indicated that he could be amenable to such a proposal. Bringing American troops home was a central theme of Trump’s America First campaign rhetoric, and making good on his campaign promises continues to be the animating principle of his administration. Working out a peace deal with North Korea would be an accomplishment few could ignore. It would buttress his bona fides as a master negotiator in the eyes of his supporters, and — along with an economy that continues to gain momentum in the wake of last year’s tax cuts — would make him a formidable candidate in 2020 — Robert Mueller notwithstanding. And then there would be the greatest incentive to making a deal happen: Trump would accomplish the task that Obama himself declared to be the most difficult to achieve, and grab a Nobel Prize in the process.
How titanic Trump’s achieving could prove to be will depend on how history ultimately assesses the motivations of and objectives realized by the parties to any ultimate deal. While it is certainly possible that Kim Jong-un has simply been cowed by Donald Trump’s threats and decided that this is the time to sue for peace, it may well be that China has stepped up pressure on North Korea to make a deal because China sees an unsurpassed opportunity to achieve its own objectives. What may be viewed in the moment to be a significant achievement for the U.S. President — should it come to pass — may, could come to be viewed differently the passage of time. Rather than an event that heralded peace in our time, it could instead come to be seen as a critical event in China’s ascendency as a regional, if not global, power.