Nuke deals are the rage these days. The United Nations sees nuclear accords as a path to peace. President Barack Obama worked toward a nuclear-free future.
President Donald Trump, on the other hand, is highly skeptical of deals with Iran and North Korea because he understands what Tehran and Pyongyang leaders know: Nuclear disarmament deals are for suckers.
Countries balk at giving up nuclear capabilities because nuclear weapons are a time-tested and reliable deterrent. Giving them up requires faith that any agreement inked is rock solid and that the countries agreeing to unilateral nuclear disarmament are assured they will not wind up like Ukraine or Libya – invaded or overthrown.
Trump does not inspire this faith. Neither does he have faith the other side will do as it’s told. That’s why the Iran deal may get scrapped and why Trump tweeted at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stop “wasting his time” negotiating one with Kim Jong Un. Depending on unpredictable policy pronouncement or stated goals, treaty breakdowns could lead to a Middle East arms race or a reignited North Korean conflict.
If the Iran deal is broken by the United States, there will certainly not be a North Korean deal, or future deals with rising nuclear states, because foreign leaders will have evidence of what they have always suspected: These agreements are a trap.
Trump has dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, withdrawn from the Paris climate accords, and decided (but not announced) whether to recertify the Iran deal. Every agreement, treaty, and pinky-promise made by America is in question. Even NATO wondered if collective defense was on the table.
“If America fails to honor a global agreement that it helped forge, the repercussions will undercut our diplomatic priorities across the globe,” former Secretary of State George Schultz wrote, making the business case for sticking with the Paris climate deal. North Korean nuclear disarmament is one of those priorities.
Putin, like Trump, does not concern himself with previously done deals. In 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed by the U.S., U.K., Russia and Ukraine. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine had the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal and the memorandum called for all 1,900 nuclear weapons to be moved to and disassembled in Russia. In exchange for the nukes, the parties agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine,” including Crimea.
What is the likelihood that Putin would have invaded and Crimea or started a hybrid war in Ukraine’s Donbass region if Kiev controlled its arsenal? Zilch. The lesson learned by other aspiring nuclear powers? It pays to have nukes.
Putin is not the only double-crosser. NATO’s duplicity in Libya provides a lesson for potential disarmament partners. Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003 and, in return, saw painful sanctions removed. Then he was killed. Long story short, it was a bad deal for him personally. The country has not fared well, either.
That all happened way back when Obama was president, but dictators have pretty good memories. As a result, Kim Jong Un is looking closely at bad precedents and Trump’s potentially reneging on the relatively fresh Iran nuclear deal.
If Trump grudgingly recertifies the Iran deal for a third time, then maybe North Korea might be open to negotiating away its own nukes. Unlikely, but possible. Especially with a little stiff prodding from Beijing.
All indications are that Iran, despite its reprehensible regime, is following the deal’s conditions. Under those circumstances, Trump’s team favors recertification. Secretary of Defense James Mattis just told Congress that the U.S. needs to stick with the Iran deal.
Trump may be trying to imitate Mohammed Ali and aggressively “rope-a-dope” Kim into a nuclear deal. The president’s global reputation, however, as a sometimes (to some people) charming but blunt prevaricator is not likely to trick Kim into an act of self-toppling political suicide.
Which means Trump might just do as he tweets by ordering a preemptive strike on Kim to try to land a sucker punch.
Markos Kounalakis is a senior fellow at Central European University, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and regular McClatchy columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org