The new age of political hand holding and cheek kissing on display between world leaders
It’s December 10, 2018, and a surreal scenario unfolds in Oslo, Norway. Holding hands and man-hugging each other, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un step forward to receive the Nobel Peace Prize to rapturous applause.
Beyond satire? Not according to the bookies and senior Republican politicians who are already publicly lobbying for that outcome. The word ‘premature’ apparently doesn’t exist in their lexicon. Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior GOP figure and regular Trump critic while also a hawk on North Korea and Iran, is among them, declaring that the Korean ‘breakthrough’ wouldn’t have happened without the president and championing Trump as a ‘shoo-in’ for the Nobel prize, if Kim does surrender his nuclear arsenal.
So have we all been seduced by this new age of political cheek-kissing, hand-holding and man-hugging, on display in recent days not just in the Trump-Macron bromance, but also in the show of symbolic affection between North Korea’s tyrant Kim and South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in? Who would bet against the US president and ‘Little Rocket Man’ – now transformed into an ‘honourable’ man, in Trumpian Twitter terms – indulging in an orgy of hugs, kisses and hand-clasping when they stage their summit in a few weeks time?
Predictably Trump boasts that his belligerent ‘fire and fury’ threats and ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions were the backdrop to the historic meeting on the Korean border. Up to a point, he’s right. But at a campaign rally in Michigan shortly afterwards, Trump couldn’t resist trying to take all the credit, and ignoring the pivotal role played by Moon’s patient diplomacy.
And self-congratulations notwithstanding, America’s allies and wiser US diplomatic heads are struggling to equate Trump’s passion for diplomatic negotiations with North Korea with his continuing threats to pull the US out of the international nuclear pact with Iran on May 12. Even Emmanuel Macron (at one stage he thought he’d talked POTUS out of an Iran pact pullout) conceded in the wake of his bold, brilliant Trump-bashing address to both houses of the US Congress that the American president ‘will get rid of this deal for his own domestic reasons’. Macron added the decision would be ‘insane in the medium to long-term’.
But with Trump’s propensity to be influenced by the last person he talks to, it appears his newly-confirmed Secretary of State, former CIA chief Mike Pompeo, and his national security adviser John Bolton – both champions of a hard line on Iran – have neutered Macron’s entreaties. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also been busy lobbying Trump to scrap the nuclear agreement in favour of a far more aggressive US policy generally toward Iran. He scored a significant success when Pompeo backed Israel’s claim to have uncovered evidence of Tehran’s secret nuclear weapons development programme and described the pact as being ‘built on lies’.
Pompeo also openly mocks those diplomatic voices arguing that scrapping the Iran agreement could undermine all those Trumpian hopes of an effective ‘denuclearisation’ of the Korean peninsula by saying: ‘I don’t think Kim Jong-un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, ‘Oh goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won’t talk to the Americans any more’. There are higher priorities, things that he is more concerned about than whether or not the Americans stay in the Iran agreement.’
Bolton told television interviewers the Trump administration would pursue ‘the Libya model’ in its negotiations with the Pyongyang regime. This is a reference to the 2003 process that pressured Libya’s then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi to give up his nuclear, chemical and long-rang missile programmes, but was perhaps a strange choice of words given Gaddafi’s ultimate fate has frequently been cited by North Korea’s state media as justification for its own nuclear weapons capability.
Analysts in the US and across Asia flag up that both Bolton and Pompeo are renowned hardliners on North Korea as well as Iran, and have in the past advocated military strikes to bring down the Kim regime. The hawkish duo will be members of Trump’s negotiating team when he does come face-to-face with Kim, and they have been instrumental in persuading the US president to slightly modify his Twitter euphoria and introduce threats to ‘walk away’ if North Korea doesn’t bow to ‘denuclearisation’ demands.
Certainly, there are analysts suggesting that the Pompeo/Bolton axis is setting the table for the talks to collapse, while endeavouring to ensure that it is Kim, not Trump, who takes the blame. The arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis argues: ‘Bolton is willing to entertain some period of negotiations for the sole purpose that, when they fail, he can discredit diplomacy and push for more aggressive solutions.’
Trump, of course, is relying on his own ‘Art of the Deal’ conceit for proving the doubters wrong. But to meet his self-defined version of success, he’ll need to persuade Kim to accept ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation’ – something he and his dynastic predecessors have shown no appetite for accepting.
Most analysts stress caution, rather than confidence, despite recent adroit goodwill gestures from Kim, including a ‘promise’ to dismantle one key nuclear test-site in front of an international audience of journalists and inspectors. Private fears are growing among some South Korean leaders and US regional allies, like Japan, that Trump’s theatrical inclinations and a desperation to secure a historic victory could tempt him to strike a deal with Kim that falls well short of his declared goals, perhaps leaving North Korea with mid-range nuclear capacity in return for a test cessation pledge.
To that extent, ironically, they even view hardliners Bolton and Pompeo as potential breaks on their leader conceding too much and easing back on trade sanctions as he seeks to prove himself a great deal-maker. But if Trump really can perfect the ‘Art of the Deal’ this time, then just maybe a narcissist, misogynist, racist US president and a brutal, mass-murdering Korean despot really will march hand-in-hand onto that Oslo stage come December 10.
Just don’t count on it.