PEOPLE absorbed in their personal pursuits and blissfully unaware of the ebb and flow of international affairs might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about this week in Singapore. Was the summit between the United States President and the leader of a relatively small country in Asia really the most significant such meeting in modern times, as some in the media had been claiming? The hyperbole of the international press showed no bounds in seeking to report the news in the most dramatic terms. But, since that country was North Korea, which has constituted a nuclear threat not just to the region but to the US mainland itself, most agreed that the rhetoric was justified.
The outcome of the Trump and Kim Jong-un meeting will be analysed endlessly during the coming months. It may have been inconclusive but some are calling it a diplomatic victory for the US President. He himself has declared it a success because, he claims, North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat. Others say that it is no more than an illusion of diplomatic progress and that, even though Kim Jong-un has agreed to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the short joint document was only a statement of good intentions and re-hashed objectives and lacked specific detail about verification and implementation or any timescale.
Nonetheless, it is clear that this summit was a genuine breakthrough after years of largely fruitless diplomacy and, as such, was both historic and unprecedented. To the concern of some, however, Mr Trump was relatively restrained about human rights and North Korea’s brutal regime. He also made a significant concession about ending US and South Korean joint military exercises – too readily, in the view of many, not least South Korea itself and even the Japanese.
It is the role of leaders to agree strategic objectives and to provide the political momentum for the experts to flesh out the details. In this case, the US will need to ensure that the terms of denuclearisation are defined and that the process will be both verifiable and irreversible, including evidence of the dismantlement of nuclear weaponry and of launching and testing sites, all of which will require oversight by weapons inspectors.
For his part, the North Korean dictator has gone from being an international pariah exchanging insults with US leaders to a legitimate statesman on the world stage meeting an American President face to face – a propaganda victory for him and something that neither his father nor grandfather was able to achieve. The reasons for his change of heart and willingness to negotiate remain unclear though it seems that pressure from China may have played a part and that he has become concerned about his personal security.
While the media spotlight has been on the Singapore talks, there has been relatively little reporting of last week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation hosted by China and attended by Russia, Iran and Afghanistan as well as countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan together with India and Pakistan as new members. This regional security bloc designed to strengthen interaction on a range of political, economic and security issues produced a lengthy communique that included support of global economic governance and a call for implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement from which the US has withdrawn.
It was a reminder of the existence and importance of other spheres of geopolitical influence in the world while the US is moving towards unilateralism. The contrast between this successful summit in China and the G7 meeting in Quebec last week, which ended in disarray, was stark – with the US President leaving early, contesting the communique and then mounting an ad hominem attack on the Canadian Prime Minister.
To many, Mr Trump’s erratic behaviour towards the US’s friends and allies in the G7 was disturbing - in particular, the lack of judgment at a summit in picking a fight about tariff levels which should be resolved by negotiations between officials – and it raises questions about his fitness to conduct US foreign policy.
It is the case generally that, while the importance of his emphasis on personal chemistry and good relationships with other world leaders should not be underestimated, what really matters is the follow-up negotiations. Diplomacy is a complex, hard-nosed business. Its essence is to promote mutual interests and to reconcile conflicting ones while recognising that an adversary is invariably intent on protecting what he perceives as his own interests.
Only time will tell whether the Singapore summit will lead to effective long-term denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. But there are myriad other global issues – including, of course, the comparable nuclear threat from Iran – needing the attention of Mr Trump who possesses considerable power to influence events. In all his dealings on the international stage, surely the priority both for the US itself as well as for its allies should be Western solidarity in an increasingly unstable and troubled world.