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If you asked the leading foreign policy experts in the Republican Party—those great minds who have dedicated their lives to the history, the economics, the abstract game theory of human conflict—what has been the most vexing and potentially catastrophic threat to humanity and civilization over the last 15 years, you would find a considerable number who ranked nuclear-tipped missiles in the hands of Kim Jung-un right at the top. These experts could offer up volumes of articles in journals like Foreign Affairs, International Studies Quarterly and The National Interest—articles published over more than a generation—attesting to the intractable complexity of the Korean problem; illustrating the multitude of competing theories about how to proceed and how to avoid triggering a disastrous confrontation.
It might seem paradoxical, therefore, that for many of these experts the recent announcement by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea that they will halt their nuclear tests and scrap their test site, followed by the stunning show of rapprochement between Kim and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, rather than being a cause for rejoicing is rather an utterly ego crushing dose of humiliation.
The reason for this reaction, of course, is that the man who brought it all about is Donald Trump. It is Trump who is threatening to cut the Korean Gordian knot. And you won’t find Trump’s strategy in the pages of Foreign Affairs.
But you will find it in the pages of The Art of the Deal.
In August 2016, as the U.S. presidential election headed into its final stretch, fifty of “the nation’s most senior Republican national security officials” signed a letter published in the New York Times eviscerating Donald Trump. They declared that Trump would “be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being,” that he “has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based.”
Mr. Trump lacks the temperament to be President. In our experience, a President must be willing to listen to his advisers and department heads, must encourage consideration of conflicting views, and must acknowledge errors and learn from them.
These and other “critical qualities,” they concluded, Trump lacked; insisting that “in the Oval Office, he would be the most reckless President in American history.”
That August letter and another similar missive signed by 122 experts in March 2016 convey a combination of hubris and rage more commonly found in disappointed children. The authors could have chosen more temperate language if they were simply trying to make an adult point about the shortcomings of a candidate with a reputation for a mercurial temperament and admittedly meager foreign policy experience. To their credit, some of the signatories have come around since and expressed regret for signing. Some have even written largely in support and agreement with the president.
But their truculence and the hysteria that gripped them at the time showed in the tone of these letters. Among other things, it demonstrated that they were unconcerned about shutting the door on any future participation in a Trump Administration because, after all, how could Trump ever win now that they had delivered this verdict? The signatories’ fully believed that their sententious opposition to their party’s nominee eventually would find its way into high school history books and that it would be remembered as the decisive blow of the election.
From where did this pathological scorn emerge?
Undoubtedly many of the GOP experts had long-standing relations with the Bush camp or with other candidates and were anticipating a return to positions of power in Washington. Donald Trump was the quintessential, uncredentialed “outsider” who neither respected nor courted the wisdom of these professionals.
But the threat to the foreign policy establishment posed by Trump went far deeper than Trump’s coarse disdain for the foreign policy elites and the allegiance many of those elites had for other candidates. In fact, the entire discipline of international affairs is predicated on the vital importance of scholasticism for the solution of real world problems in today’s byzantine, dangerous world. Trump’s presence on the world stage from the very beginning raised the specter that the entire turgid, stultifying discipline of international relations would be revealed as irrelevant, or worse, detrimental to common sense approaches to conflict.
And so, with the obvious caveat that full scale peace hasn’t broken out yet in Korea, suppose President Trump does indeed succeed in his face-to-face meeting with Kim in achieving a denuclearized Korean peninsula. How do the #NeverTrumpers—particularly these foreign policy experts—respond? Will we hear the sweet ringing of mea culpa ringing out of from the Harvard Kennedy School, George Washington University, or the Council on Foreign Relations?
The question itself is risible.
To illustrate: as recently as last month, as the horror of a Trump-orchestrated solution to the Korean problem raised its fearful head, a piece titled “Will Kim Jong Un—like every other dictator—sucker Trump?” by hydrophobic #NeverTrumper Jennifer Rubin appeared in the Washington Post. Rubin, arguing that Trump’s ego made him easy prey to flattery, quotes Eliot A. Cohen (one of the “50 GOP officials”): “He’s such an easy mark. Particularly for world class thugs—he’s just a petty grafter who thinks he’s in their class.”
Former CIA Director and letter signatory Michael Hayden was cited saying that the negotiation itself was a “free giveaway” to the North Korean dictator. Similarly, Rubin quoted Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security (and a signatory to the earlier anti-Trump letter) that there is “a high chance Kim will pocket the optics, show his people and the world he is received as a legitimate head of state, and in the end keep his programs intact.” Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute and another signatory of the earlier letter sums up: “North Korea is not giving up its nuclear weapons. Period.”
Where, oh where, do these people go if Trump wins?
Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera, in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting, described the nearly untranslatable Czech word “litost” as meaning “a special sorrow, a state of torment created by the sudden insight into one’s own miserable self.” Kundera mused as to how “it is difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.”
Is an experience of litost followed by some transcendent apotheosis in store for the #NeverTrump foreign policy elite? I wouldn’t hold my breath.
No, the GOP experts are, for the most part, forever frozen in their unfalsifiable gestalt. If peace continues to unfold on the Korean Peninsula, look for these experts, as they forge the mainstream media narrative, to paint Trump as a lucky buffoon who stumbled onto the scene at the right time; even as they nitpick details that show how totally out of his depth he is.
Also, just as the media lionized Mikhail Gorbachev during the fall of the Soviet Union rather than face the debilitating cognitive dissonance of accepting that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, so too, look for elites to shower South Korean President Moon Jae-in with praise for guiding the path to peace in spite of the crudeness of his American partner.
And if and when that happy day arrives when the Korean people themselves loudly acclaim Donald Trump as the dealmaker who brought peace to Korea, look for the experts to avert their glance, to cast their eyes downward, lest they catch a glimpse too deeply into their own souls.