Trump’s short-lived foreign policy successes

For about two weeks, the world thought the US president was a man of action. David McDonough explains why we should have seen failure coming over the North Korea and Iran files. 

By: /
May 24, 2018
Trump North Korea
US President Donald Trump looks at a photographer after a meeting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-In at the White House in Washington, US, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Only recently, the Trump administration had seemingly upended the status quo the United States maintains with North Korea and Iran.

On May 8, Trump finally fulfilled one of his campaign promises by announcing the US would withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).

Two days later, he shifted from “fire and fury” rhetoric on North Korea to announcing a plan for a June 12 summit in Singapore with its despot.

But clearly the initial hopes of a breakthrough on North Korea have proven wildly over-optimistic. On Thursday, Trump announced he had decided to cancel the summit, citing the “tremendous anger and open hostility” displayed by Kim Jong-un.

Things with Iran have proven equally unsuccessful. European countries have shown no sign that they will abide by US sanctions. And, based on a recent speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there seems to be little indication of an actual Plan B to replace the JCPOA. At most, US strategy amounts to a wish-list that represents nothing less than Iran’s total capitulation.

The reasons for these respective failures need to be unpacked.

On North Korea, it has always been difficult to believe that Pyongyang was cowed by Trump’s bluster and rhetoric and therefore decided to negotiate an end to its nuclear arsenal. North Korea’s “treasured sword of justice,” as it calls its nuclear weapons, helps protect the regime domestically, by conferring legitimacy to Kim’s rule.

It also protects the regime from external threats — helping to deter any US “bloody nose” strike or regime change campaign and allowing Kim to avoid a fate similar to that which befell both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

Instead, Trump’s rhetoric likely had the unintended effect of worrying the more risk averse leaders in South Korea. That would put in context Seoul’s major role in facilitating the Trump-Kim summit in the first place. In such a reading, North Korea adroitly took advantage of South Korea’s fears to end the regime’s growing isolation.  

North Korea had always wanted to deal with the United States alone, a strategy that it thought could provide legitimacy to the regime and undercut allies like South Korea and Japan — which is why previous US administrations always refused such overtures. Until recently. Trump’s decision to initially agree to a summit offered a means for the North to realize this goal, with little in return. And it completely altered the way the North was perceived by China, from a troublesome ally to a potentially useful tool.

North Korea’s commitment to end its nuclear and ballistic missile testing had always been questionable. After all, the North recently declared its quest for nuclear weapons to be “complete” and that it “no longer needs” to test its nuclear capability. Also, any promise to halt ballistic missile testing was easily reversible. So too with nuclear testing. By unilaterally destroying the nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri, with journalists rather than inspectors in attendance, Pyongyang effectively hid details of the country’s nuclear program. And the North can always develop a new nuclear test site.

Instead of denuclearization, it seems more probable the North was always seeking some recognition as a nuclear power, and that Trump fell into the trap of conferring a modicum of legitimacy on the regime and its nuclear ambitions by agreeing to meet Kim with no preconditions.

"When it comes to both North Korea and Iran, it’s hard to imagine how Trump’s moves will result in anything other than failure."

Trump’s approach to Iran has been equally problematic. The JCPOA is far from perfect. It only froze Iran’s program, rather than definitively ending it. It had some restrictions that expired in several years’ time (sunset clauses). Notably, it did not include related issues like ballistic missile development, while doing little to curtail Iran’s broader ambitions in the Middle East. Indeed, by ending the sanctions against the mullahs, it provided additional funds to realize such ambition.

Yet this also ignores one critical point: the deal was still successful at curtailing and freezing Iran’s nuclear program. Iran had 20,000 centrifuges and a large stockpile of enriched uranium before the deal, with a breakout time to develop a nuclear bomb reportedly measured in a matter of months. After the deal, the number of centrifuges was cut to 5,000, the uranium stockpile was reduced by 98 percent, and the breakout time extended to a year.

Iran also had to accept inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, including the more intrusive Additional Protocol to the IAEA Safeguards Agreement that gave inspectors broad power to access suspicious sites.

Yes, the JCPOA only constrained Iran’s program for upwards of 15 years (with some, but not all, restrictions lessening after a decade). However, critics of JCPOA have yet to show how no agreement — and no constraint at all on its nuclear program — would have been better.

What about Israel’s revelations about Iran’s nuclear program? The problem here is that these “revelations” did not reveal anything new — the IAEA has extensively documented Iran’s nuclear program in its own reports. What Israel’s revelations don’t say is that Iran was cheating on the JCPOA.

That raises legitimate questions on the US decision to withdraw from it. It would be a different matter if the US had threatened to exit the agreement as a matter of coercion or pressure – to strengthen some elements of the agreement, or to force a separate deal on ballistic missile testing. Instead, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from this agreement with no real justification, nor a plan to achieve a new agreement.

Contrary to Pompeo’s claims, it remains to be seen how unilateral sanctions will be stronger than the multilateral sanctions that led to the JCPOA in the first place, or how they will achieve goals far more expansive than simply freezing Iran’s nuclear program. European countries have said that they don’t intend to follow through on sanctions themselves, which puts the US on a collision course with its EU allies, setting the stage for a further worsening of trans-Atlantic relations. Another strong multilateral coalition being formed to put pressure on Iran is simply not in the offing.

When it comes to both North Korea and Iran, it’s hard to imagine how Trump’s moves will result in anything other than failure. On one hand, his actions on North Korea provided a golden opportunity for the North to end its isolation. China became more relevant than ever on the Korean Peninsula, even as traditional US allies like Japan were sidelined. The Trump administration’s decision to cancel the summit (at least until the next surprise announcement from either side) doesn’t fundamentally reverse the consequences of these missteps, although they have at least prevented possibly even more serious miscalculations at the summit itself.

What’s next is more uncertain. Both sides carried unrealistically high expectations for the summit, even if their positions remained worlds apart. As a result, they will likely throw recriminations at each other now that reality has finally set in. Tensions between the two sides will likely only deepen. Importantly, however, the US position has only weakened as a result of Trump’s policies, while the North’s position is stronger than it was just several months ago.

On the other hand, rather than strengthening its position vis-à-vis Iran, the US has also only weakened its coercive leverage on that regime and damaged its relations with traditional European allies. Without the JCPOA, Iran has even less reason to be restrained in the Middle East. The Quds Force’s unprecedented direct missile attacks against Israeli targets in the Golan Heights, followed by intensive Israeli strikes in Syria in response, should be seen as only a harbinger of what is to come.

While European countries seek to safeguard the agreement, it’s likely Russia and China will use this opportunity to increase their influence in Iran and the broader Middle East. Iran could very well choose to restart its nuclear weapon program too, perhaps openly by withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Such actions might be the casus belli needed to generate robust, multilateral sanctions. But it took several years of sanctions to convince Iran to sign the JCPOA. And this time around, Iran will likely be far less willing to sign any agreement, given how the US reneged on the JCPOA.

Trump once stated, “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.” If this is what “winning” looks like, I’d hate to see what failure turns out to be.