Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing
What does the Trump-Kim summit mean? Not much, says John Rees
Behind the usual Trump bombast at the North Korea summit in Singapore, and the media’s largely uncritical retailing of that bombast, there lies the noise created by an empty vessel.
Trump needed a success, so he just decided to declare one. What the small print of the Trump-Kim summit actually says is well summarized by the Guardian:
Bullet point 3 is clearly the crucial part of this statement, about the question of nuclear disarmament, and it is fairly weak, certainly a long way away from the brisk disarmament of North Korea Trump officials were promising in advance of this summit.
For one thing it says that North Korea will work towards denuclearisation, which a fairly flimsy diplomatic word. Also, it references the Panmunjom Declaration signed by Kim and the South Korean president Moon Jae-in in April.
That talks about “the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula” - in other words, North Korean nuclear disarmament would take place as part of a global nuclear disarmament, so no time soon.
What Trump has actually done is to tear up a functioning nuclear deal with Iran and replace it with a meaningless multilateralist statement of intent with North Korea.
We may all welcome the retreat from earlier war-mongering rhetoric but this deal will not preclude it’s sudden return because there’s nothing of substance in it.
Kim Jong Un must be laughing all the way to the DMZ. In a single bound he’s escaped from the dunce’s corner of international relations and now bestrides the world as, well, if not quite a colossus, then at least the admired ally of the most powerful head of state in the world.
China too will be relieved that any likely further pressure to contain their ally has just sharply decreased.
The real lessons of the circus in Singapore are two-fold.
One, this is another episode in the decline of US power. The initiative was taken out of US hands when North and South Korea began another round of détente at the Olympic games and it has never regained it. Trump has merely managed to grandstand on a stage that he neither created nor on which does he control the action.
Two, the age of populist leaders is an age in which foreign policy goals are determined as much by domestic campaigning priorities as by traditional international relations strategy. US Presidents are supposed to at least make a show of pursuing goals agreed on by the entire foreign policy elite, otherwise known as the ‘national interest’. Trump isn’t interested in that, although he sometimes has that approach forced on him by the wider US power structure.
Trump is interested in his base and his standing with his base. He needed a success in Singapore. So, he just declared one because it works at home. The reality of the deal, the boost it gives North Korea, the gain for China (all the stuff of traditional foreign relations) is secondary to Trumps ability to strut the world stage in front of his base.
If there is one thing more dangerous than a US President following the dictates of the foreign policy elite, as Bush did with the Project for the New American Century, it’s a President following his own mercurial interpretation of what viewers of Fox news think is a good idea. But that is where US economic decline wedded to overwhelming military power, plus the aftermath of defeat in Iraq, has brought us.
But, as far as the Singapore deal is concerned, Macbeth had it about right:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,