Why did the Trump administration cancel its much-hyped nuclear summit with North Korea? And why the confusing semi-backtrack the following day, in which Trump embraced North Korea’s “warm and productive statement” regretting the cancellation, and left the door open to a meeting he’d ditched barely 24 hours before? The answer lies in the toxic interplay between Donald Trump’s instincts and John Bolton’s. Each man’s foreign-policy views are dangerous enough in and of themselves. Put them together and you have the perfect cocktail for the decimation of American power.
Bolton is a Manichean in the tradition of his hero, Barry Goldwater. He has spent his career depicting America’s adversaries—the Soviet Union, Cuba, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and these days, Iran and North Korea—as evil. He denies that they have any legitimate security concerns. He abhors compromise. He demands maximum American economic, political and, if necessary, military pressure. He basic negotiating posture is: Once you give in on everything, then we’ll start talking.
But while Bolton’s Manicheanism is dangerous, it’s also targeted. Bolton wants to turn the screws on Iran and North Korea. He doesn’t want to turn the screws on American allies like Germany, France, South Korea, and Japan—except to the degree that they resist a hardline posture towards North Korea and Iran. Bolton has little use for international law but he likes America’s alliances.
Trump is different. He doesn’t divide the world into virtuous, pro-American regimes, which the United States should support, and villainous anti-American ones, which the United States should crush. Trump is less ideological. Instinctively, he believes that almost every regime is ripping America off—the adversaries and the allies too. That inclines him to pick a broader array of fights. But it also makes him more willing to resolve them. Trump is not moralistic and he’s not a stickler for detail. Bolton seems to want to be the 21st-century version of Reagan (as he’s imagined in conservative mythology): standing up to the evil enemy and bringing about its downfall. Trump seems to want to be the political version of Trump the real-estate whiz (as he’s imagined in Trump’s own mythology): cutting great deals that make everyone rich.
The Trump administration’s North Korea policy is what happens when you put these two instincts together. On his own, it’s unlikely Bolton would have agreed to a summit with Kim Jong Un in the first place since it violates one of his core principles: Never concede anything until the other side does first. Bolton’s maximalism would have made any diplomatic deal with Pyongyang unlikely. But Bolton—because he draws a clear distinction between America’s enemies and its allies—would probably not have picked a fight with South Korea over steel tariffs. Nor would he have risked a trade war with China while seeking its help in pressuring North Korea. Bolton is a national-security hardliner, not a trade hardliner.
Trump, on the other hand, was elected as much to confront America’s economic partners as to confront its national-security adversaries. So he threatened trade wars with China, South Korea and Japan even as he threatened a real one with Pyongyang.
But Trump’s love of the deal also led him to embrace a summit with North Korea that he believed might bring him the adulation and vindication he craves. Left to his own devices, he might have attended the summit, agreed to some vague, flowery language about denuclearization, demanded the Nobel Prize, and moved on to other subjects even as North Korea didn’t actually eliminate its nuclear program. And indeed, all it took was an expression of North Korean regret to get Trump to start speculating that the June 12 summit could be back on, and that “we’ll see what happens.” Given the importance of avoiding war on the Korean Peninsula, and the benefits of opening up North Korea to South Korean influence, that would constitute progress.
But not for Bolton, who laid down a marker by declaring that his model was Libya, wherein Muammer Qaddafi utterly capitulated. The North Koreans—who are terrified of the Libya model because they believe Qaddafi’s denuclearization left him vulnerable to Western regime change—responded with fury. And while Trump tried to keep the summit on track by declaring that America wasn’t seeking regime change, he managed to threaten it nonetheless, as did Mike Pence. As North Korea’s rhetoric grew more bellicose, Trump reportedly began to fear that the summit would bring him not glory but embarrassment. As Trump’s biographer, Tony Schwartz, told The New York Times, “Trump has a morbid fear of being humiliated and shamed. This is showing who’s the biggest and the strongest, so he is exquisitely sensitive to the possibility that he would end up looking weak and small.” This analysis was corroborated by an NBC report suggesting Trump pulled out of the summit because he feared the North Koreans would first.
In the end, Trumpism and Boltonism have produced an outcome that’s worse than either on its own. The summit is or maybe isn’t off, and the U.S. is back to threatening war but confusingly somehow seeking talks. None of this enhances Trump’s credibility as a negotiating partner. Meanwhile, North Korea still has its nuclear weapons, and could resume testing them. By confronting Beijing on trade, the U.S. has squandered some of the leverage it needs to convince China to keep imposing tough sanctions on Pyongyang. And with his initial letter cancelling the summit, Trump surprised and humiliated South Korean leader Moon Jae In, who may still pursue détente with the North whether or not Trump rescinds his cancellation, thus undermining Trump and Bolton’s maximum-pressure campaign. South Korea may also draw closer to China, which would leave the U.S. more isolated in Northeast Asia than it has been in decades.
Something similar has happened in Europe. First, the Trump administration’s threats of steel and aluminum tariffs infuriated European leaders. Then its Boltonesque maximalism led America to withdraw from the Iran deal, aggravating and humiliating the Europeans all over again.
The problem here isn’t merely personal. It’s structural. Trump won the Republican nomination, and the presidency, in part because he realized that, after the Iraq disaster, national-security maximalism was no longer a political winner. John McCain and Mitt Romney had pushed a hard line against Iran’s nuclear weapons and a soft line against China’s widgets and lost. Trump outperformed them in the upper Midwest because he ran as a trade hawk, and he knows that maintaining that image is crucial to his political fortunes.
Yet national-security maximalism still dominates the Republican foreign-policy and media ecosystem. There are no more Brent Scowcrofts, Colin Powells, and Richard Lugars. And so, as his national-security adviser, Trump chose Bolton, who had spent the previous years demanding on Fox News that North Korea and Iran capitulate.
We have seen the results this spring: An administration that, in both Asia and Europe, pursues geopolitical and geoeconomic confrontation at the same time. It demands that America’s economic partners impose sanctions on America’s political adversaries even as America threatens economic sanctions on them. Even George W. Bush, for all his hubris, didn’t try this. He didn’t hand over his military policy to Dick Cheney and his trade policy to Pat Buchanan at the same time.
It hasn’t worked. America doesn’t have the power to force China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Britain, and others to capitulate on trade while it forces North Korea and Iran to capitulate on nukes. Instead, the combination of Trump and Bolton’s maximalism is alienating public opinion across the world—which will sooner or later produce populist anti-American leaders. And it’s exposing America as a paper tiger, a country that demands things it can’t compel. Trump may not be able to distinguish bluster from genuine power, but the rest of the world is catching on.