Trump Can’t Be Both a Deal Maker and a Deal Breaker

President Trump wants to cut an ambitious nuclear deal with North Korea. But he just broke away from one of the most important nuclear agreements in the past 50 years.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photograph at the beginning of a one-on-one meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

In a rare public appearance at Stanford University on Thursday, Donald Trump’s envoy to North Korea offered the most candid and detailed road map yet for the administration’s nuclear talks with Kim Jong Un. It was, as he acknowledged, extremely ambitious.

“I have this perfect outcome moment where the last nuclear weapon leaves North Korea, the sanctions are lifted, the flag goes up in the embassy [of the United States in Pyongyang], and the [peace] treaty is signed in the same hour,” said Stephen Biegun, just weeks before Trump is due to meet with Kim for a second summit on his signature foreign-policy initiative.

Yet hours later, in Washington, D.C., the president did something seemingly unrelated that nevertheless challenged Biegun’s vision. Trump announced plans to pull the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a Cold War–era pact with Russia that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons.

It was his second withdrawal from an arms-control or nuclear-nonproliferation agreement, following the United States’ departure last year from the nuclear deal that his predecessor negotiated with Iran and other world powers. And it was in keeping with the Trump administration’s exit from other Barack Obama–era international pacts, ranging from the Paris climate accord to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement. A recent White House rundown of the president’s accomplishments during his first two years in office includes, by The Atlantic’s count, three scrapped deals, two renegotiated deals, five negotiations or renegotiations of deals that are in the works (including Trump’s threatened withdrawal from the Universal Postal Union), and no brand new deals.

If the dream of a peaceful, prosperous, denuclearized Korean peninsula is to become a reality, North Korea’s leaders, who have deeply distrusted the United States for decades, will have to believe that Trump (and whoever succeeds him) will honor the grand bargain that Biegun has in mind—a long shot that Friday’s move may make longer. And Trump himself will have to prove as accomplished a deal maker as a deal breaker.

The Trump administration’s stance so far on nuclear-arms-control and nuclear-nonproliferation agreements has been “repeal and don’t replace,” Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association told me in October, when the president first hinted that he would ditch the INF Treaty.

On Friday, Russia and the United States blamed each other for the demise of the second-to-last treaty restricting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov asserted that U.S. officials have embarked on a new arms race, while a senior Trump administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, declared, “If there is to be an arms race, it is Russia’s actions that have undermined the global security architecture and have undermined this particular arms-control agreement.”

The American official has a point. Washington has, since the Obama administration, been accusing Moscow of violating the INF Treaty by developing and fielding a banned cruise-missile system, to no effect. That’s why NATO has backed the Trump administration’s notification of withdrawal from the pact, which grants Russia six months to come back into compliance before the U.S. exit is official. In calling out Russia’s breach of the INF Treaty, the administration could argue that it is sending a message to Pyongyang that the United States won’t stay in a deal it feels the other party is betraying.

But it’s also true that, as Ryabkov suggested, the Trump administration has shown contempt for international arms-control and nuclear-nonproliferation agreements. A number of the president’s advisers—most prominently, National-Security Adviser John Bolton—“don’t like negotiated arms control. They see it as abridging U.S. sovereignty” and constraining freedom of action, Richard Burt, who helped negotiate the INF Treaty during Ronald Reagan’s administration, told me last fall.

Trump has justified his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the INF Treaty as the necessary first step to making better deals. With Iran, for example, the administration envisions a deal that would prohibit not only Iran’s nuclear pursuits, but also its ballistic-missile program and regional behavior. With the INF Treaty, the president has said he wants both Russia and China, which possesses hundreds of shorter-range nuclear-capable missiles but is not party to the treaty, to “come to us and they say, ‘Let’s really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons.’ ”

In neither case, though, has that ideal deal yet materialized.