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It’s Complicated

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Sigh.


Look, in general it can be complicated to explain why the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un went so badly for the United States, but it is legitimately not true that Donald Trump “talks about diplomacy like everyone does,” unless “everyone” is a small selection of pundits who know very little about diplomacy. Diplomacy is really quite hard, and desperately complex; things that seem “stupid” generally reflect years, even decades of practice, debate, and compromise.  I’ll even go so far as to say that this weight sometimes becomes too, well… weighty, and that it’s not always wrong to try to cut through the bullshit.  I would further go so far as to say that a significant percentage of folks who specialize in international relations at the academic level do not understand the complications of diplomacy. It certainly took me some time working at my current place of employment to get a sense of what diplomats and negotiators actually did with their time.

That said, sometimes it’s genuinely not very hard, and you really don’t need much experience or knowledge to be able to tell the difference between two alternatives. Just to throw out an example, contrast the Leap Day Deal and the letter that Trump just signed.  The first is a detailed international agreement that specifies a set of obligations upon each state, and establishes mechanisms for monitoring and verification.  This deal failed, in part, because it didn’t account for how North Korea could use satellite launches to test its missile technology. The Trump administration determined to remedy these problems by removing any and all obligations from North Korea, apart from an implicit promise to maintain a unilateral embargo on nuclear and ballistic missile tests.  If you can’t tell the difference between these two things, even without a minimal education in the diplomacy of nuclear weapons, then the problem is on you.

Avoiding nuclear war is, generally speaking, a pretty easy thing to do.  Most of us do it every day.  The process that Trump and Kim started in Singapore might get somewhere someday, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  Pyongyang got several things that it wanted without having to give up very much at all, and is just as likely to pocket those concessions as it is to move on to something more productive.  A more astute diplomatic process, even granting the DPRK’s progress on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, might have been able to earn something useful for the concessions of a) a photo op with the President of the United States, b) a cessation of joint exercises with South Korea, and c) a relaxation of tensions that will inevitably lead to a relaxation of sanctions enforcement by China and others.  These are valuable things, and the North Koreans (who are smart, savvy diplomats) might have been willing to give up something tangible in order to get them.  And it matters because this, from Tom Cotton, is actually really bad when it tells “two-bit rogue regimes” that they’re problems are solved as soon as they test their first nuke.

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