Trump-North Korea Summit Is A Game Changer, Fontaine Says

May 11, 2018
Originally published on May 11, 2018 6:39 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This has been a dramatic week in U.S. foreign policy. President Trump announced that he is pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, keeping a campaign promise but also roiling relations with some U.S. allies. Trump welcomed home three Americans who had been detained in North Korea. And after that, the president tweeted a date and location for his unprecedented expected summit with North Korea's leader. Let's talk about all of this with Richard Fontaine. He was a foreign policy adviser to Republican Senator John McCain. Also worked at the National Security Council and in the State Department under President George W. Bush. Good morning and welcome.

RICHARD FONTAINE: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: I want to start, before we get to a broader foreign policy discussion, with one big moment this week. Your former boss, Senator McCain, came out against President Trump's pick for CIA director, Gina Haspel, saying her role in overseeing torture is disturbing. And, reportedly, a White House aide said in a private meeting that McCain's opposition didn't matter because, quote, "he's dying anyway." What did you take from that?

FONTAINE: Yeah. That's a pretty shameful way of thinking about this. I think Senator McCain's service to the country continues to be extraordinary. And I think almost everyone would agree with that. And his consequential opinions on things, including this week, his opinion on the viability of the CIA director nominee's candidacy, I think also stands - he stands for something greater than just a political point of view or something like this. He really believes in what American values stand for in the world and wants to back those up in what he says and does.

GREENE: Do you think this White House takes criticism of its foreign policy from people like John McCain seriously?

FONTAINE: It's hard to say. I mean, no White House tends to take criticism of its foreign policy well at all, anyway. They tend to say that it's simply misunderstood, or something like this. But I would hope that it would least be cause for some self-reflection among those - you know, there are a number of pretty broad departures in this White House's foreign policy, some welcome, and some not so much. And hopefully, this would be a cause for at least a bit of introspection.

GREENE: Departures meaning departure from traditional policy? Is that what you're saying?

FONTAINE: Right. I mean, if you thought even a few months ago about the possibility of a summit between the American President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un the leader of North Korea, it would have seemed pretty farfetched. But yet, a month from now, we're set to do just that.

GREENE: It looks like it's going to happen. Is this summit a game changer in some ways?

FONTAINE: It's a game changer in terms of the diplomacy, certainly. I mean, often these kinds of processes lead up to a presidential-level meeting if they are successful. So you would have lower-level officials work a disarmament process, or something, and then have the heads of state come in and close it if it sort of materialized into something. This is completely flipping the script on that, and so it will start at the highest possible levels. The upside is that maybe this makes a deal more possible. The downside is if it fails then we've hit the diplomatic cliff and could fall off the other side.

GREENE: And what does that mean? What happens next if we hit the diplomatic cliff?

FONTAINE: Well, that's the big question, is, where would we go from here? I think that where we would be is where we were just a few months ago. It's almost hard to remember, but everyone was worried about war on the Korean Peninsula. There were threatening words coming from Pyongyang. There were missile and nuclear tests happening. And it was a pretty high state of tension. Sanctions were going into place, and it wasn't very clear where everything might lead up. A military option was on the table, but so was a long-term posture of deterrence and economic pressure. But there was a lot of uncertainty, and I think we might return to that.

GREENE: So if the biggest risk is just returning to what was existing, is it worth taking the chance and having this summit then?

FONTAINE: Well, now that it's going to happen, I think there is certainly a case for approaching this in a more traditional fashion. But now that it is going to happen, I think it's certainly worth testing. I think the chances that Kim Jong Un sincerely wants to give up his nuclear weapons are very, very low. But it's worth testing the proposition to see whether diplomacy can lead to some sort of agreement between the United States and North Korea that would lead to dismantlement of their nuclear and missile programs. Now, that said, the danger is that a bad deal is much worse than no deal when it comes to North Korea, and that's something that is true not only for the United States but also for our allies in the South and Japan.

GREENE: As you look at how President Trump is handling North Korea going into the summit, as you look at how he took the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, which has roiled a lot of allies - just looking at this past week, how would you describe the broader logic to this president's foreign policy?

FONTAINE: Well, President Trump certainly likes dramatic moves in U.S. foreign policy, personalized moves, whether it's personally greeting the three imprisoned Americans in North Korea - which is a major accomplishment for having secured their release - or, you know, guaranteeing that he would fulfill his campaign pledge when it comes to moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, or pulling out of the Iran deal or another dramatic move in meeting the North Korean leader, these are highly visible, highly personalized kinds of moves. And, among other things, it suggests to me that the president really is taking the steering wheel on his own on foreign policy, in contrast in some ways to the way he was in the first few months of his presidency.

GREENE: Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security. We really appreciate your time this morning.

FONTAINE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.