So who is patronising who by acknowledging the other’s existence?
Does Trump Actually Think He Is Honouring Him?
What can be said of the forthcoming meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.. There was a time when most of the world would have agreed with this assessment, as little irritants like North Korea are generally beneath the personal attention of people like the President of the Unites States. They may talk about them a lot, but would never condescend to meeting them, and thus granting them a respectability they are not believed to possess.
But we are no longer in a world where Sadat and Begin, who would never have met on their own initiative, were both cowed into meeting Jimmy Carter at Camp David. The leader of a small and poor has now forced the President of the United States, the embodiment of all evil in North Korean eyes, to meet him. Everyone says North Korea’s nuclear threats have no scientific basis, so they are therefore nothing more than words, but here is the US president running to Kim Jong-un because he is worried about what he says is impossible being committed by someone he says isn’t capable.
Nor is this just about Kim. The US won the Cold War long ago, though you wouldn’t know it from its desperation to pander to still-Communist China. But here is the last state to practice repressive theoretical socialism, a country which cannot survive according to any accepted economic model, forcing its way into the Club of Nations instead of withering up and dying.
North Koreans have had to pay a heavy price for the country’s nuclear ambitions, with poverty and deprivation widespread and contact with the outside world strictly regulated. But now The Great Leader can say that these ambitions are forcing the evil West to take North Korea seriously, exactly as he said they would, and are therefore part of a justified national crusade, a victory every North Korean has played a part in winning.
So who is patronising who by agreeing to this meeting? It is obviously important to regulate the use of nuclear weapons, particularly when a particular country is threatening to use them to cause maximum harm and gain maximum publicity. But who except North Korea has anything to gain by treating it as part of the exclusive Nuclear Club, the modern equivalent of the ancients assemblages of Great Kings?
Weapons of mass distraction
Sovereign states are theoretically equal, as each runs their own affairs. But everyone has always known that isn’t true in practice. So the more important ones create exclusive clubs, which few states can join, to set themselves apart from others, and thus obtain and project the influence they want before someone else does the same to them.
Within living memory many such clubs have existed. It used to be that only states with overseas empires were taken seriously, until those states started granting their colonies independence and said that those who held onto them could not be taken seriously. After the Iron Curtain was torn down the EU and NATO became similar clubs, demanding that prospective new members accept certain economic and political orthodoxies, which were not necessarily relevant or desirable, in order to be taken seriously.
But the Nuclear Club is the most exclusive of all. Partly this is to justify the unjustifiable: not only the Japanese are still living with the consequences of the H-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which finally ended World War Two. So their use has to be presented as a positive thing, or at least a necessary evil, which should only be entrusted to the best and most respected of states.
Countries are not allowed to join the Nuclear Club because they have nuclear weapons, but because the other members trust them to do so in what they feel is a responsible way. Part of the rationale for the “War on Terrorism” is that terrorists might get hold of nuclear weapons. This would be a bad thing in the case of those terrorist groups, but not in other cases, because terrorists aren’t respectable enough, even if they end up creating countries through their terrorism.
The same terrorists may have no interest in deploying these weapons, and in that they share the alleged position of the countries which have them. But if they want to possess them for their security this is a bad thing, despite the fact the other countries which possess them say this is the only reason they also have them.
The Nuclear Club is not about controlling deadly weapons but demarcating who the most important countries are, and inventing rules about what this entitles them to do to others. North Korea, the great unreformed pariah, would never be allowed to join the Nuclear Club because no other member sees that as a good thing. Even if it had more deployable, effective warheads and rockets than the rest of the world put together, which it may need to have before long, it would never be an acceptable member for political reasons.
It is known that seven other countries have conducted successful nuclear tests and currently possess nuclear arsenals: the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, India and Pakistan. Can anyone seriously imagine that any of these countries, from their various political standpoints, would countenance treating North Korea as a political equal?
It has long been assumed that Israel also possesses nuclear weapons, as it has the expertise to produce them if it wants. But it refuses to confirm or deny this, and therefore cannot join the Nuclear Club. This should make Israel the greatest pariah state of them all, as its nuclear activities cannot be regulated, and it would be easiest place geographically from which to supply the terrorists we hear about in the news with nuclear material.
But Israel is politically acceptable to most members of the nuclear club, and the US in particular. So North Korea is the threat and Israel is not. This demonstrates what North Korea itself wants these weapons for, and what the other countries know they want them for. By agreeing to meet Kim Jong-un Trump has given North Korea the credibility to play a direct role in regional affairs like Russia ad China: just what the West has always tried to prevent happening, and just when the long years of isolation have practically ruined the country.
On with the show
The announcement of the Trump-Kim meeting, and subsequent attempts to try and pretend it might not happen, suggested to observers that few people even in the White House knew anything about it until they also heard the press conference. This would be typical Trump: grandstanding without consulting anyone, believing himself to be above the issues ordinary mortals have to take seriously.
But even before this announcement Trump had shown no talent for diplomacy. People always say they want politicians who say what they think instead of accepting compromise after compromise. But few expected the wild amalgam of falsehoods and egotistical drivel Trump has inflicted on the world since his unexpected elevation to the Oval Office.
Trump has done more to harm the office he holds than notorious figures such as Warren Harding, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon ever did. It will not be the President of the United States who meets Kim Jong-un, but Donald Trump. No one will believe he is capable of finding a diplomatic solution to the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme, although he will be very good at making a noise, generating photo opportunities and alienating his allies by subscribing them to his own stupidity.
Compared with Trump, Kim Jong-un is a statesman. He and his country have the same talent for falsehood and self-promotion, but until now without the economic or political success to go with it. Now all the sacrifices his country has made, which were imposed by Kim and his predecessors, can be presented as part of a great and successful plan to make North Korea a great nation, which only the Great Leader could have made possible. Suffering will be turned into a virtue, and the US will appear to have been converted to the North Korean cause, not the other way round.
Will any of this make the world safe? It is very unlikely. North Korea won’t give up the weapons which prove it is one of the world’s best countries. Other countries, who have supported the other nuclear powers until now, will observe what North Korea has achieved and want to make the same giant geopolitical leap.
The best friends of the current nuclear powers, whether Western or Eastern in orientation, might even be offered these weapons to buy their eternal loyalty, much as France was. If not, they will join the growing list of countries who want “defence agreements” with Israel, but never see any Israeli troops on their soil when the going gets tough.
If the US wants to stop Kim Jong-un using nuclear weapons it has plenty of its own it could use. It doesn’t fire them because everyone else would turn against it. No one knows how many people would be left after a nuclear apocalypse, but North Korea is one of the many countries which were prised out of the Soviet orbit and handed to the Chinese on a plate. There are so many Chinese that some of them will still be around, and better positioned geopolitically than the US which fired the weapons which murdered millions of people.
Trump has no levers to prevent North Korea doing exactly what it wants. If he had stuck with sanctions and negative propaganda North Korea would have had nothing left but weapons the US says it can’t use. Now Kim has been given everything by an opponent apparently incapable of understanding the depths of his own incompetence. Whatever else Kim Jong-un is, he isn’t stupid, and he knows he could have Trump for breakfast literally as well as figuratively if he chose.
The moon has a dark side
US allies have once again been placed in an ambiguous position by the President of the United States. Theoretically they support the idea of negotiated settlements of any problem. However they can see what harm this meeting will do, if it does indeed take place, so will only go along with it reluctantly.
Trump was elected on the promise of new hope and a new way of doing things. This is a noble ambition, and it is refreshing that US electors had it. But all he has done is expose the fundamental weakness of the Western position on anything, and turn those same hopes and dreams into dust every time he opens his mouth.
The West believes negotiation works because it thinks everyone who takes part in civilised discussion will ultimately agree to common rules invented by the West. For example, it enjoins countries to “jaw, jaw, not war, war” as if the two things are mutually exclusive. Time and again countries allegedly negotiating an end to conflict have remained actively involved in that conflict, or seized opportunities presented by the existence of negotiations to further their interests by the military route. But that is against the rules, so somehow it will magically stop one day, in Western thinking.
If the West doesn’t like a country, it attacks it for not obeying those rules. North Korea doesn’t obey any of them, and has intention of doing so. If it enters negotiations that will not change. It has negotiated on different issues before, and nothing has changed. Having got to table by pursuing this policy it is not going to stop now, however much the West may hope its rules are universally respected.
The West is right to assume that most people in nuclear-armed countries who don’t respect Western rules of conduct would rather their countries were more Western in approach. But you achieve that by contrasting two realities, and making the policy decision to give the better option to those who want it.
If you give your opponents every excuse to declare their policies a success, particularly when their people have suffered much to make them a success, you throw away every possibility you had to change things. Trump, the isolationist, may not care about this. But millions of people who can’t impeach him will have every reason to care a great deal if this meeting goes ahead.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.