Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is less confident than Delury that Trump “gets it” at a strategic level. In becoming the first American president to meet the leader of North Korea, Lewis argued, Trump is simply being “transactional. … He wants the photo just as badly as Kim Jong Un. He wants the foreign-policy win.”
But Lewis added that the far-reaching deal the Trump administration appears to be contemplating may be fitting for the new nuclear era. Coercive tools for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons aren’t nearly as powerful now as they once were. The more promising tools, he said, “are persuasive in nature.” And maybe they look something like the options the Trump administration has floated ahead of the Singapore summit—transformative political, security, and economic concessions such as a formal declaration to end the Korean War; a flood of American investment; and eventually a peace treaty and the normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea in exchange for North Korea dismantling its nuclear-weapons program.
When it comes to efforts to control and curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Lewis argues, the “coercion era” is ending. We’re now in the “asking nicely” era. And Donald Trump, in Singapore, for a day at least, will essentially be asking nicely.
In the 1970s and ’80s, economic sanctions and national laws prohibiting the export of nuclear-related technologies were effective because most countries didn’t have a sufficient industrial and technological base to build nuclear arsenals on their own, Lewis said. But they’re far less so today, when nuclear technologies are “archaic” and it therefore isn’t as difficult for aspiring nuclear states to develop native programs. (“North Korea is not the world’s great industrial power,” he noted.) And since the barriers to entering the nuclear club are now lower, it’s also less credible for the United States to threaten war with every country capable of clearing the hurdle. Is the U.S., already traumatized by two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, really going to invade both Iran and North Korea to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons? Lewis asked.
U.S. officials may argue that it was Trump’s sanctions and talk of military action that forced Kim Jong Un to negotiate, but Lewis believes it was Kim Jong Un’s declared completion of his nuclear program last fall that proved decisive. As Lewis sees it, it was the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, not the campaign’s success, that has motivated the president to pivot to the polar opposite approach: a campaign of maximum engagement with Kim.
The Obama administration tended to credit sanctions with paving the way for the Iran deal, but Lewis thinks the agreement was really a product of the administration dropping a number of demands and asking nicely: The United States, for example, let Iran keep certain nuclear facilities and continue engaging in some limited enrichment activities. The deal basically “keeps this country that we have problems with from getting a nuclear weapon for a while—and that gives us time to solve these other problems [in the relationship], but it doesn’t fix them,” Lewis said. As Philip Gordon, a former Middle East adviser to Obama, has noted, part of the administration’s theory in thinking about the pact’s 10- and 15-year restrictions on elements of Iran’s nuclear program was that the “openness and engagement” brought about by the agreement would create “constituencies for cooperation” that might one day inspire a new generation of Iranian leaders to be less confrontational toward the United States. “You don’t make deals like this with your friends,” Obama observed, in announcing the deal.