Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Hours after the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un melted down, the President’s defenders were pushing a face-saving historic parallel by drawing comparisons to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1986 impasse at Reykjavik, Iceland, which was later seen as a turning point in the Cold War.
The Republican rule still seems to be: When in doubt, cite Reagan.
Yes, no deal is better than a bad deal. But beyond the walkout, the parallel breaks down fast.
First, Reagan was negotiating with a superpower, not a rogue nuclear state looking for legitimacy.
Second, Reagan insisted on concrete concessions and tangible expressions of goodwill before agreeing to meet at Reykjavik, specifically securing Russia’s high-profile release of US journalist Nicholas Daniloff, who had been arrested and falsely charged with spying.
Third, the Gipper didn’t simply trust his gut, dismiss the experts and reject preparation. Extensive diplomatic efforts by lower-level diplomats had primed the pump, with liaisons between the two nations in the months leading up to Reykjavik. In contrast, CNN national security analyst Sam Vinograd wrote in The Daily Beast, “President Donald Trump’s failure to engage in the most basic preparatory work for this summit — and his longstanding penchant for putting personal convictions ahead of his experts’ opinions meant that there was no way that he could have come out of this summit with a denuclearization deal.
Remember, denuclearization was the goal. President Trump said after the first meeting with Kim in Singapore that North Korea had agreed to begin “total denuclearization” right away. That’s heady stuff. It’s also incredibly misleading. While the joint statement released after the Singapore summit states Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the two leaders had not agreed upon a definition of what that would mean. And the two leaders still view the word very differently.
North Korea has made no tangible steps towards denuclearization. To add evidence of pre-game bad faith, North Korea hid its weapons in case of potential US military strikes, all while maintaining its nuclear program, according to a UN report submitted before the Hanoi summit. And before Trump’s second meeting with Kim, members of the US intelligence community concluded it was unlikely North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons. But the President forged ahead anyway.
At Reykjavik, the two world leaders wanted to see if they could break through bargaining positions with concrete proposals as well as personal chemistry. There were no public professions of love, but a serious, sober-minded effort between people of different ideologies to take the world back from what was widely believed to be the brink of nuclear war.
And so, in a modest former ambassador’s mansion that some believed to be haunted, the negotiation was conducted in private, without hype, giving the two leaders room to improvise details with their senior advisers as it rained outside.
According to the Washington Post, the Soviet premier showed up in Reykjavik with an ambitious proposal that exceeded American expectations. Gorbachev laid out major concessions, including a 50%, cut in offensive strategic arms, the elimination of intermediate-range missiles based in Europe, and new negotiations on a ban on nuclear testing
“This is the best Soviet proposal we have received in twenty-five years,” remarked Paul Nitze, the US senior arms-control adviser, according to the book “Great Negotiations” by Fredrik Stanton. It was driven not simply by idealistic desires for peace but by Gorbachev’s awareness that the USSR could not keep up in an extended arms race.
Reagan – who was at the time often unfairly characterized as a warmonger – could see the rewards of his fidelity to George Washington’s maxim: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” His commitment to increasing the US military budget helped the US negotiate from a position of strength.
But there was a catch that proved to be the breaking point at Reykjavik: Gorbachev’s key condition was that the US abandon Reagan’s prized missile defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Even though SDI was closer to vision than reality, Reagan saw it as the ultimate nuclear deterrent. So, he reluctantly walked out when Gorbachev insisted development of SDI be confined to the laboratory for 10 years. But Reykjavik laid the groundwork for future deals to reduce nuclear weapons.
As Secretary of State George Schultz later reflected, “I knew that the genie was out of the bottle: the concessions Gorbachev made at Reykjavik could never, in reality, be taken back. We had seen the Soviets’ bottom line. … At Reykjavik we had reached virtual agreement on INF and had set out the parameters of START [the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]. And we had gotten human rights formally on the negotiating table… . [T]he reality was that Reykjavik was a stupendous success.”
And even in his disappointment, Gorbachev left the summit and told the Icelandic prime minister, “There will be more coming out of this meeting than anyone realizes….This is the beginning of the end of the Cold War.”
So far, there is no sign that Hanoi set the table for a future breakthrough. The departure was abrupt, with not even symbolic agreements like the expansion of diplomatic ties, which had been floated. That’s why the administration’s former North Korea envoy Joseph Yun pronounced the summit a disappointment on CNN, calling out the lack of preparation by the president and the constant lowering of expectations.
More importantly, Trump has not been moving nuclear non-proliferation in the right direction. In fact, he recently suspended the US from the Intermediate Nuclear-Range Forces treaty that Reagan negotiated, leaving the fate of other nuclear deals in question while opening the door to a new international nuclear arms race.
In the case of North Korea, conversation and relationship building is preferable to reckless nuclear rhetoric. But, if North Korea’s nuclear arms proliferate, then this is all just an ornate exercise in ego-stroking while pulling off a bait and switch.
The frustrating thing is that the Trump administration initially turned up the pressure with tough talk and sanctions, which were effective enough to bring Kim to the negotiating table. And the Trump administration deserves credit for getting tougher with China’s abuse of the international system, which may ultimately compel them to take more responsibility in the region rather than enabling the young dictator further.
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Again, no deal is better than a bad deal. With the explosive Michael Cohen hearings occurring in the US, there must have been a temptation to draw media attention away from the serious accusations leveled by the president’s former enforcer. Trump ultimately resisted that temptation. Good.
But don’t buy the idea that this summit collapse is a second Reykjavik. That’s just spin. North Korea clearly responds to tough talk and action, but they’ve been getting very little of that lately from the President. Instead, Trump continues to dismiss our own experts and take the word of dictators instead. And in the process, we see once again that President Trump is not actually very good at the art of the deal, especially when the stakes involve nuclear war instead of selling gilded luxury condos.