Grading the Singapore Summit: Compared to What?

    Graham Allison

    Security, Asia

    U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un hold a summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    Against the bottom line of American national interests, how does the sum of what we saw in Singapore compare to the alternatives?

    In the hyperpolarized state of American politics and policy debate, both critics and supporters of the Trump administration have become so predictable that they are now background noise. If required to summarize my assessment of the Trump-Kim summit in one line, it would be: oversold and undervalued. Despite their best efforts, his critics haven’t come close to matching Trump’s preposterous claim that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

    The critical test in assessing moves on the international chessboard is the question: “compared to what?” Against the bottom line of American national interests, how does the sum of what we just witnessed in Singapore compare to all the feasible alternatives?

    Think back 510 days to the world before Trump. During their first meeting after the election, President Obama reportedly warned President-elect Trump that North Korea would be “the most urgent, alarming, and bedeviling threat you will confront.” At that point, there were three, and only three, possible futures. On the first road, both the U.S. and North Korea would continue doing what they had done for the previous eight years, and the eight years before that—North Korea advancing its nuclear and missile programs relentlessly, with occasional pauses, and the U.S. seeking, unsuccessfully, to persuade it to stop by tightening sanctions or promising economic relief. On the second road, the U.S. would attack North Korea before it acquired the capability to conduct nuclear attacks on the American homeland. The third road would require a “minor miracle” in which the two parties would somehow find an alternative to the first and second paths.

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