The photos from the Singapore summit were meant to impress, but the substance was thin indeed — for a vague pledge to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula our president gave up U.S.- South Korean joint military exercises in a surprise move that whacked both South Korea and Japan .
Maybe it will all work out. But to understand what President Donald Trump is really after, let me put this into perspective.
Trump is a businessman, so let’s think of him as a new CEO and his supporters as the shareholders. When new CEOs come in they work hard to impress shareholders. They sometimes use the company’s good credit rating to borrow money, even for such things as share buybacks just to boost the stock. Or they may propose to sell assets, to get more cash on the balance sheet.
They usually look for good news to trumpet on Wall Street, and go on “road shows” with investors to seek even more investment in the company and further raise the share price. Of course, the best actually work the company itself, improving products, worker morale, and relations with customers.
But new CEO Trump has focused on his shareholders. He’s drawn down 70 years of U.S. credibility, reliability, and consistency on such issues as NATO, relations with Canada and Mexico, and our alliances in Asia, to seek headlines and support from a minority of the electorate — often on the basis of false information and specious claims.
Trump is selling off assets — like U.S.-South Korean military readiness — to gain little more than a smile from North Korea. He also wants to claim to have one-upped his predecessors. Trump frightened the world with bellicose rhetoric, turning a problem into a crisis, in order to become the “savior.” At home he is trashing government and the civil service while on a perpetual “road show,” with rallies of supporters and harsh attacks on critics, strengthening his base at the cost of further dividing the country.
With respect to North Korea , all the hard work remains to be planned out, agreed on, and done. What is the schedule for actually decommissioning plants, warheads, and missiles? How will we verify? What is our schedule for relaxing sanctions? Do we have to pull out our troops, as part of some private understanding? What about Kim’s million-man force threatening Seoul with conventional, chemical, and biological weapons? Does South Korea have to surrender its independence in essence? What will be the impact on our allies, and on regional stability?
I heard the president say we’re safer now, but those of us who have spent decades working on this and other strategic problems see the U.S. starting down the slippery slope of unwarranted concessions, weakened alliances, and rising risks of instability and conflict.
It is no secret that both China and Russia want U.S. forces out of South Korea, and thereafter out of Japan, Okinawa, and the western Pacific. And it is no secret that Russia wants NATO and the EU hobbled and weakened, and the U.S. out of Europe . And both have wished to push the U.S. back into a more isolated and less significant world role. They fear our democratic values, which by their very allure constitute a threat to their own regimes, as well as our ingenuity, economic strength, and heretofore consistency of purpose.
The first tentative results of the summit match China’s game plan.
President Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to believe that his personal diplomacy is the crucial factor in the world’s safety. Many others have slipped into the trap, only to realize eventually that nations have enduring aims and interests, whatever the charm of a particular leader at a certain moment. Most have then fallen back upon the less dramatic but sure methods of proven diplomacy — careful study, patient preparation, weighing risks versus opportunities, and short term vs. long term. And they have learned that language matters.
In the short-term, many new CEOs make progress through financial engineering, showboating, and charming their shareholders. But the companies that have brought lasting value to the public markets produce real results, not just headlines.
In the case of the Singapore summit, Mike Pompeo has to try to repair the damage to our allies, and that might be possible in the short term. And just maybe a useful, and detailed dialogue with North Korea can emerge that will bring greater stability to Northeast Asia. But if I were an investments analyst, listening to the quarterly earnings call, I would mark the company no better than “hold,” and I’d watch the behavior and performance of the CEO very carefully in the quarter ahead. A reckless CEO, cashing in in credit ratings and assets, can lead a company to quick failure.
Since the end of World War II, the world has counted on the reliability, consistency and, yes, generosity, of the United States . We’ve made some mistakes and we’ve even been taken advantage of on occasion. But the remarkable achievements of decolonization, lifting billions from poverty, maintaining peace during the Cold War, and enlarging the sphere of personal freedoms and creativity wouldn’t have been possible without U.S. leadership. Now is not the time for the American people or our leader to cash out and move to Florida !
Commentary by Retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and a Senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center. Follow him on Twitter @ GeneralClark .
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