North Korea ‘gangster’ line is a big problem for Trump
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Your allies and your enemies are keeping tabs on your summit scorecard. Below, find an assessment of how your Singapore summit will impact meetings this month and why a summer of successive summits may yield mixed results.
American gangster: A boulevard of broken dreams
The outcome of your meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore is not strengthening your position going into summit season in Europe because your counterparts think you’re being played and are either unaware or unwilling to admit it.
Your hope that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons, missiles and technology was viewed as a pipe dream even before you met Kim in Singapore — and with North Korea’s latest round of name-calling, your interlocutors see you and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo foolishly driving down a boulevard of broken dreams.
With the “regrettable” breakdown in negotiations this weekend, North Korea has gone from talking about its “willingness to offer the US side time and opportunity” to criticizing our “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” The North Koreans are, consistent with previous patterns of behavior, balking at actually denuclearizing and blaming us for throwing negotiations off course.
With Secretary of State Pompeo taking the opposite tone and calling bilateral talks “productive,” we assess that your peers think that we are so eager to declare victory that we’re willing to ignore the insults and the North Korean’s refusal to take concrete steps forward.
Your peers likely understand that we’re seeing a typical North Korean playbook unfolding:
- Proliferate insults alongside weapons: Name-calling is the North Korean way of buying time, time they use to make more weapons. So whether we’re “gangsters” or “American bastards,” diatribes will likely proliferate alongside North Korean weapons stockpiles over the coming weeks. North Korea has typically blamed the United States for being the aggressor and provocateur in this relationship. Our military exercises (which we have put on ice) are provocative, our sanctions (we haven’t implemented any new ones in recent weeks) are provocative, your name-calling of Kim is provocative. And the North Korean response — well, they say their actions are simply defensive.
- Make it a one-way street: North Korea has publicly voiced its desire for a step-by-step approach. “Phased, simultaneous actions” is the North Korean recipe of choice, but it’s clear after their name-calling stunt this weekend, they are not actually prepared to give anything up. When Pompeo tried to get into details, they balked.
If anything, in the intervening weeks since the summit, the North Koreans have continued in their same militarized way. They have not frozen their weapons program, and they have not returned POW remains, which they promised to do at your meeting several weeks ago.
Against this backdrop, when you see your NATO allies and Vladimir Putin, they’ll be keen to know what “gangster” moves Pompeo made during his stop in Pyongyang; i.e. whether he made real, specific demands on North Korea and if he shared that the timetable for this diplomatic track has an end date.
If you brief your NATO peers and Putin that you’re going to let the diplomatic track play out or, alternatively, that US patience with Kim is running short, all parties will react differently.
If, for example, Putin thinks you are considering an open-ended period of negotiations, with nothing to show for it, he may propose a similar set of negotiations on bilateral US-Russia irritants like cybersecurity. (He knows you proposed a cyber working group before). So be aware that he may try to replicate the Singapore model of superficially agreeing to negotiations without actually putting anything real on the table.
You should also be aware that Putin will likely believe you are so desperate (since the Singapore summit is failing to produce any real outcomes) that he may dangle a baby carrot in front of you. Putin promising to negotiate another short-lived ceasefire in Syria, for example, which he has no intent to uphold, is low cost for him, but something he thinks you may cling to because it’s a tangible outcome you can tweet about.
NATO Summit: Walk the line
As you prepare to engage with the 28 other NATO members in Brussels, Belgium, this week, they will likely assess that you struck out in Singapore and will want to use your second time up to bat — this time in Brussels — to hit a home run. Well, the good news is that there’s good news.
Countries are deeply aware of your focus on getting them to meet their commitments to devote 2% of GDP to defense spending , and while only three European countries met this commitment last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that eight NATO members will meet the 2% guideline in 2018 and 15 are expected to do so by 2024.
But the good news doesn’t stop there. At the Brussels summit, NATO leaders will make several major announcements: NATO is establishing a new command structure with two new command centers (including one in Norfolk, Virginia), has improved the capabilities and mobility of its forces, an enhanced focus on cyberthreats, new missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and deeper cooperation with the European Union. In other words, the NATO alliance is healthy, strong, growing and better funded.
So, NATO members assess that there’s a lot to show off and are deeply hopeful that you’ll laud NATO achievements while walking the line vis-a-vis Russia. NATO has emphasized that it is in favor of dialogue with Russia and doesn’t want a new Cold War; being tough on Russia doesn’t mean publicly threatening them any more than it means placating them. It’s a fine line but an important one.
So, while NATO members hope you’ll agree to speak plainly about Russian threats, antagonizing Russia publicly is not in NATO’s playbook. If the Russian threat decreases, then NATO will focus its attention on other threats — including countering terrorism in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, remember, calibration will be key: What’s good news in Brussels will be considered provocative behavior in Moscow, so celebrating NATO accomplishments should be accompanied by clear signals that NATO isn’t an alliance designed to destroy Russia. Members may want to lift up these other missions publicly to signal to Russia that, well, it’s not all about them.
We assess that Putin is gunning for you to calibrate against NATO and toward Russia by focusing on where NATO members could do better on defense spending. On the flip side, Putin would also view it as a success if NATO members express public frustration with you for your perceived obfuscation on Russian election meddling, Russia’s invasion of Crimea or Russian malfeasance more generally.
Putin would have a field day if NATO members sent you letters expressing their frustrations with you for failing to uphold commitments to the alliance, similar to the letters you sent to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others for failing to live up to their defense spending commitments, because it would air the alliance’s dirty laundry in public, making it look weaker. So be aware, Putin will try to poke the bear — or bears, in this case — to get you to turn on NATO members or vice versa.
UK visit: No one puts baby in the corner
With several summits under your belt, you’ll arrive in the United Kingdom for a working visit with Prime Minister Theresa May under “special” circumstances: Your arrival is likely to be met by large protests and even a Baby Trump blimp. Viewers around the world will tune in to see whether these protests get under your skin and derail the visit or whether you can focus on the substantive agenda that you and May have to get through.
May is likely hopeful that you’ll have a positive NATO summit and come to the UK prepared to underscore the bilateral US-UK alliance. With a lot of issues on the table, she’s likely eager to make a deal on trade, Iran (granting waivers for UK companies), and even on Russia — in light of more UK citizens poisoned by the nerve agents Novichok and UK authorities claiming that Russia used the UK as a “dumping ground” for these chemical weapons.
Because you’ll see Putin after you see May, she may be looking for you to carry a message about repercussions for the poisoning to him. She is aware that the United States joined several other countries in responding to the first poisoning but also that you did not raise the issue during your call to Putin congratulating him on his “election” victory. She, as well as NATO allies, are likely unsure as to whether you will be willing to carry any tough messages to Putin.
After consulting with 28 other countries at the NATO summit and then spending more time with May in the UK, your pre-Putin summit swings could be the precursor for another round of coordinated action against Russia on multiple fronts, including its use of chemical weapons.