The possibility of negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a good opportunity to review some basic wisdom about foreign policy and so avoid a debate about whether Trump should be given credit for having initiated this opening because of his bluster or whether he should be blamed for having a State Department that may not be up to the task of carrying out the negotiations. Bits of wisdom are that rather than knowledge because they cannot be put to the test through experiment. You can’t run history as a controlled experiment, but you can make a case that one adage about foreign policy seems more trustworthy than another. The wisdom in question is that most foreign policy decisions are inevitable because of the nature of the geopolitical circumstances. You can delay them, as when Wilson delayed entry into World War I when TR, if he had been elected in 1912, would have more quickly gotten into the war, even though that would have meant many more American casualties, though it probably would also have forestalled the rise of Communism and Fascism. The best a leader can do, in Obama’s memorable injunction, is not do anything stupid, such as get us into a needless war in Iraq. Just go with the inevitable and don’t do anything else. The alternative wisdom is that supplied by George Kennan who, in his classic book “American Diplomacy”, argued that clever diplomatists can come up with a formula whereby a treaty can be constructed which redirects history. That wisdom was belied in Kennan’s own time when no one, not even George Marshall, could figure out a way to negotiate with the Russians or the Chinese and so we had to settle in for a Cold War whereby, as Kennan himself predicted, we would outlast them, though what would follow the Soviet Union, and which Kennan had not predicted, would be a return to the usual Russian situation of rule by an autocrat who would, as Soviet dictators previously had, also rattle his missiles, rather than some more modern regime. So let me defend the Obama principle of yielding only to the inevitable.
The main feature of American foreign policy throughout the Nineteenth Century was to avoid having the North American continent turn into Europe, which had been subject to continual warfare for millennia because it had been, to borrow an expression, balkanized into any number of nations and principalities that were constantly feuding with one another over borders as well as for religious reasons. The United States was to be different from that and what that meant was to create by whatever means and to whatever extent practicable a continent wide nation. The effort to achieve this end, sometimes derisively known as “Manifest Destiny”, had its limits. Canada twice foiled the attempt of the United States to take it over, the first time in the Revolutionary War and the second time in the War of 1812. But the policy prevailed in that the extension of the United States beyond the Mississippi had been championed by John Adams years before, even though the Federalists opposed the Louisiana Purchase when it took place because they thought it would lead to permanent rule by the opposition Republican Party. James Polk, for his part, is not given enough credit for having maneuvered the United States into the Mexican War, which resulted in the ceding to the United States of what is now our southwest. Otherwise, the area, largely unsettled by the Spanish, would have been up for grabs, including by a Napoleon III who might well have solidified his influence over Mexico. That there were limits to American expansion to the south was the result of the fact that before the Civil War a Cuba controlled by the United States would have become a slave state and that it was probably not a good idea to include an island heavily imbued with Iberian authoritarianism into the American nation, though at the turn into the Twentieth Century it became possible to turn some Caribbean possessions into territories that would not have much prospect of being incorporated into the Union. So the main strand of Nineteenth Century expansion had an air of inevitability, that including the decimation of the native Indian tribes, however much Manifest Destiny may have offended the moral sensibilities of both Thoreau and Lincoln.
The movement into World War II has accompanying it a similar sense of inevitability. There was no question that the United States would be sooner or later caught up in a war in the Pacific with Japan, our natural rival in the area at least ever since TR felt the need to send Admiral Dewey to Manila to keep Japan from inheriting what was left of the Spanish Empire. The Rape of Nanking supplied a sufficient casus belli for war in the Pacific, but FDR, more concerned about developments in Europe, waited for months for what he knew would be the inevitable naval attack by the Japanese. Meanwhile, FDR was increasing the tempo of aid to Britain because he knew we did not want them to go under to a far worse adversary than the Kaiser had been. Yes, there were internal politics, such as by the America First movement, that made the war a partisan issue rather than a matter of inevitability, but the nation quickly united behind the war effort after Pearl Harbor and even the Republican nominee for President in 1940, Wendell Willkie, had no significant differences with FDR over foreign policy. The recognition of the abiding and inevitable interests of the United States remains bi-partisan however much one demagogue or another, someone like Joseph McCarthy, for example, tries to make it otherwise.
The most clear-cut example of the bipartisan nature of foreign policy, and so a sense of the inevitability of the conflict, was the Cold War. Truman through Reagan followed the same policy of seeing the Soviet Union as our primary antagonist and that required that every local conflict be seen in the light of whether it provided some marginal advantage to the United States as that was combined with a nuclear policy that posited Mutually Assured Destruction as its basic principle, a policy that might never have been carried out because it would lead to the end of civilization but to which massive resources were addressed. Like others of my generation, I did not like the alternative of dead or red, hoping for some kind of nuclear disarmament, and that finally did come when the Soviet Union no longer had the financial resources to continue the arms race and its government had “matured” enough for it to, in effect, surrender, that bringing an end to the regime. Parts of the Cold War were unnecessary, which is to say hardly inevitable. That was true of the Vietnamese War, a mistake on any number of grounds, but the general sentiment that the Cold War had to be seen through was bowing to the inevitable. Communist dominance of the world would have been every bit as bad as Nazi dominance of the world.
Negotiations concerning North Korea have an air of inevitability about them. They are not so much about their supposedly immediate objective, which is denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula because the need for that is already obviated by the MAD doctrine already “proven” by the Cold War. Rather, the real point of talks is to draw North Korea into the normal body of nations. North Korea is the last of the two Cold War allies of the Communist Bloc whose relations to the world have not been fully normalized. Cuba has largely come to peace with the West, only the United States moving so slowly in that direction. North Korea was within the Chinese orbit and is now a dependant on and a nuisance for China. Other flash points on the borderlands of the Soviet Empire have been resolved, the break up of the former Yugoslavia only with great difficulty and Ukraine into its European turning west and its Russian turning east with considerably greater ease. Only North Korea remains and it wants to be rid of sanctions so long as its national integrity is preserved and it is not simply swallowed up by South Korea. So there is a basis for negotiations. Kim Jong-un may be failing to recognize, however, that normalization would include better trade relations and those imported goods might do more to destabilize his regime than anything else. That is what we are hoping will be the case in Cuba. But Kim Jong-un might be no more insightful an analyst of foreign policy than is Trump.
An additional factor in the North Korean situation is that Russia is in no position to create a new empire of the possessions lost from the Soviet Empire because it suffers from the same problems that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in the first place. It has an extractive economy dependant on what is likely to be the long term decline of the price of oil and has not been able to construct a first world economy that produces wealth from manufacturing and technology. Russia is like the Soviet Union in that it can only build weapons. So who needs North Korea? No one except China as a buffer state, and so there you have it, reason enough to negotiate. Whether Trump can pull that off is a good question, but it doesn’t have to be done during this Administration. The forces of history will make that happen even if diplomats can be midwives at the process and so help create an easier glidepath to normalcy. The Congress of Vienna and the meetings at Versailles at the end of the First World War had a world to rebuild and so had to get on with it, successful in the first case but not in the second, but look at how quickly the promise of the United Nations came to nothing, overtaken as it was by the Cold War, which rendered it moot. So be patient. Korea will get resolved because there is no reason for it not to happen.