Trump Cancelled The Summit With North Korea. Here's What He Should Do Next.

President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will no longer be meeting in Singapore.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

President Donald Trump's decision to cancel the North Korea summit is proof that diplomacy will never succeed without expertise. 

Throughout the entire process of the North Korea negotiations, President Trump has been proudly shooting from the hip: he'd try something new, he'd fight fire with fire, he'd ignore the learnings of the past and put fresh eyes on a global issue. His supporters have cheered on this approach, railing against a "failing establishment" that — up until now — has prevented the resurgence of a conflict capable of inflicting mass casualties.


On Thursday morning, that all came crashing down. 

Not because Trump did something wrong — he didn't. He was left with no option after North Korea leaders threatened to "make the U.S. taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now." The president's mistakes came well before Thursday's bizarre letter to North Korea, which had a mix of diplomatic hedging and blustery Trump-speak.

In truth, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula had no real chance this time around. Not in context of the summit brokered by South Korea and touted by Trump. Experts told us this, repeatedly. While Trump was bragging that "everyone thinks" he should get the Nobel Peace Prize, while House Republican members were nominating him for said prize, the real North Korea experts were expressing caution about spiking the ball before we scored a touchdown. 

Last year, Ben Rhodes, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted that "Trump pulling out of the Iran deal would create a second nuclear crisis while alienating the same countries we need to address the North Korean crisis." Eight months later, President Trump pulled out of the Iran deal and watched the summit fall apart two weeks later. National Security expert Max Boot wrote in The Washington Post last week that Kim Jong-un "has President Trump right where he wants him" and that Trump is "hopelessly confused." International newspapers like The Guardian also spoke about the chances of peace with clarity. Six days ago, The Guardian's editorial board declared that "prospects of success at next month's planned summit in Singapore look worse than ever."

And it's easy to see why. The administration's "fresh approach" included troubling tactics that were, in fact, novel: President Trump fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just days after announcing the now-cancelled meeting with Kim. The United States still has no ambassador to South Korea while trying to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.  We have no permanent undersecretary for arms control or international security affairs, and no permanent assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. 

The State Department, responsible for executing the non-war options of international problem solving, has been operating with askeleton crew and had a hiring freeze until this month. 

July 9, 2017. Kyiv, Ukraine. Rex W. Tillerson, the former U.S. Secretary of State, gives a briefing during his first visit in Ukraine. Shutterstock / Krysja

Instead of leaning into diplomacy and leaning on the experts, President Trump has relied on his "instinct" and showmanship. He's participated in a volley of nuclear bombing threats, claiming his button was bigger and his missiles were greater. He's oscillated between confidence the summit would happen and deep skepticism it'd come to fruition. He's mouthed off on Twitter, sending diplomats into a state of confusion, and he's even rejected "the Libya model" without — seemingly — understanding what his National Security advisor John Bolton wanted or what the Libya model even was. 

It wasn't all for naught, though. 

President Trump successfully brought home three American prisoners to safety. We now know the strongman, shoot-from-the-hip approach isn't going to work. 

Yes, it's frightening to think there aren't many good options going forward, and perhaps that things are worse now than they were a year ago, but it's also true there is plenty left to try. 

The Trump administration has embraced unorthodoxy out of a disdain for the establishment they have tried to separate themselves from. But now, if the president is willing to admit this didn't work, he can still move towards peace. He can staff his State Department with experienced diplomats, seek the counsel of experts who have studied and spent time in the region, and maybe even maintain his own unpredictable, unorthodox behavior that some credited with bringing South and North Korea closer to peace. 

If President Trump wants a Nobel Peace Prize, he needs to use the biggest weapons in his arsenal: people with years of experience working in diplomacy and on the Korean peninsula. People equipped to solve the problems at hand — including those that Trump has himself helped to create.

Cover image via Frederic Legrand - COMEO /


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