The big news events in U.S. foreign policy this week—President Donald Trump’s reversal on the trade ban with the Chinese electronics company ZTE, his wavering on “denuclearization” as a demand in the upcoming summit with North Korea, and Israel’s killing of 50 Palestinian protesters while Trump’s emissaries celebrated the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem—all have one thing in common. They stem from Trump’s unwillingness to ponder the consequences of his actions in countries that he doesn’t understand.
In mid-April, as prelude to trade talks with Chinese officials (and a revving-up of a threatened trade war with China broadly), the White House barred U.S. firms from doing business with ZTE, in part because the company had violated the trade ban with Iran and in part because of cybersecurity concerns with its hardware. Then, Sunday morning, after China (and some private financial analysts) warned that the ban could put ZTE out of business, Trump backpedaled, tweeting that he was working with Chinese President Xi Jinping to get ZTE “back in business, fast,” adding, “Too many jobs in China lost.”
The fate of Chinese workers was an odd concern for a president whose motto is “America First” and who has lashed out at Chinese trade practices with particular ferocity. A more likely reason for Trump’s revised position is that, when the ban was announced, he simply didn’t understand the two-way nature of ZTE’s supply line: It wasn’t just that ZTE depended on American-made components (mainly from Intel and Qualcomm); it was also that those American companies made a lot of money—and employed a lot of American workers—from their business with ZTE.
The complexity of supply lines, worldwide, has caught Trump and his protectionist advisers by surprise. In the two months since his tariffs on steel and aluminum went into effect, 8,200 U.S. firms—most of which use imported foreign metals in their own manufacturing processes—have asked the Commerce Department for exemptions.
Some commentators have speculated that Trump imposed the ZTE ban in the first place as leverage to get China to relax its tariffs on U.S. agricultural products. If true, it’s odd that Trump would publicly back off the ban before locking China into its side of the deal. Others guess that the 180 might be related to some Trump-Xi side deal on the upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But this connection too seems vague.
Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, has a pithier, and more plausible, explanation for the switch. “Essentially,” she wrote in an email, “Trump started a trade war and is now negotiating to get right back where he started.”
As for the upcoming summit with North Korea, with just four weeks to go, Trump’s position is alarmingly uncertain. The official line, until recently, was that Kim must agree to the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of his nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. However, in recent days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that it might be sufficient for Kim to get rid of merely his long-range nuclear-armed missiles. In other words, Kim can keep his nukes, as long as he can’t fire them at the United States.
On Fox News this past Sunday, Pompeo said, “America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver, or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning. … That’s our objective, that’s the end state the president has laid out.” (Italics added.)
Pompeo said nothing about the short- and medium-range nuclear missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan—an omission that plays into our regional allies’ greatest fear and North Korea’s most fantastic ambition. These allies fear that the United States will abandon them for the sake of a deal that protects its own narrow security. The Kim dynasty’s ambition—dating back to the diplomatic gambits of the current leader’s father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung—is to sever the security links between Washington and Seoul (possibly Washington and Tokyo), in order to dominate the Korean peninsula or at least to prevent Kim’s enemies from dominating him.
But Pompeo’s position is at odds with that of Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton. That same Sunday, on CNN, Bolton not only held firm on “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of all aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program but also said Trump would take a look at the country’s ballistic missiles, its chemical and biological weapons, its record of abducting South Korea and Japanese citizens—its readiness, in short, to behave like “a normal nation.”
There may be, in other words, a battle for Trump’s soul in the intramural skirmishing over the demands to be made at the Singapore summit with Kim on June 12. But this only reflects, among other things, that Trump, with so little time left, hasn’t decided on a position—and that he’s allowing his top aides to discuss contesting positions in public, as if they were set, which can only sire confusion and false expectations.
Trump has worsened the situation by sending a clear signal that he is desperate for a deal. He has called Kim—perhaps the most opaque and murderous dictator on the planet—an “open” and “honorable” man and has raised hopes not just for a deal but for a peace treaty that formalizes the end of the Korean War (which, Kim would argue and America’s allies would protest, also ends the needs for U.S. military forces in and possibly near South Korea). Neither Trump nor Pompeo has talked about the continuing dispute over terms. When they say denuclearization, they mean the dismantlement of North Korean nukes, whereas Kim has long referred to the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Kim insists (with Xi’s firm backing) that any deal must be reached through “phased and synchronous measures”—a little bit of disarmament by North Korea, a little bit of sanctions relief by the West, and on it goes, step by step, over a long period of time—whereas Pompeo, and especially Bolton have talked of a “big bang”: Kim dismantles everything all at once, and then the United States bestows the rewards.
There is a chance for a deal if Trump softens his demands. The thing is, since Kim knows Trump is desperate for a deal, he will come to Singapore feeling—rightly or not—that he can sit back and wait for the president to make concessions.
On ABC’s Sunday program, This Week, Bolton said that Trump would wait until the summit itself, and “size Kim Jong-un up,” before deciding what demands to make. This is the most alarming statement of all to come out of the news shows. It pretty much acknowledges that Trump, who generally overrates his relations with foreign leaders, is unprepared for this summit—whereas Kim has been prepared for years.
Finally, on Monday, there was the opening of the new U.S Embassy in Jerusalem—a physical manifestation of Trump’s decision last year, almost alone among world leaders, to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was meant to be a celebration, but it turned out to be an embarrassing horror—as the world saw the juxtaposition of images of Trump’s entourage (including his daughter, son-in-law, ambassador, at least one Cabinet secretary, and several aides) smiling and applauding with simultaneous footage of Israeli soldiers shooting hundreds of Palestinians—killing more than 50—as they stormed the security fence in Gaza.
Trump was warned, by his own officials and by various European and Arab allies, that the decision to move the embassy would spark protests and violence. He could have averted, or at least dampened, the bloodshed by pressuring the Israelis to make some concessions to the Palestinians in advance of the embassy’s opening (freezing settlements, opening up some checkpoints, holding talks, even if just for show). But Trump demanded nothing. This was the critique of his basic decision. For decades, the United States, the U.N., the European Union, and other world powers have held out recognition of Jerusalem as the final step of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even as the peace process has long lain dormant, Trump was warned not to hand recognition to Israel without any conditions.
The violence—which may well spread to other countries in the region, just as Sunni Arab leaders have lowered their rhetoric against Israel, even formed alliances in the face of their common enemy, Iran—is a direct result of this failure, of this refusal to understand the consequences of his actions in other parts of the world.