At this point, I fear that such a breakthrough is impossible. The United States military does not take orders from the inexperienced and self-centered Trump, but gives them to him. The military is itself in the midst of enormous internal conflicts concerning what the United States will do in the coming months against Iran and Russia.
The recent demands of Saudi Arabia, with encouragement from the United States, that Qatar essentially give up its political and economic independence and end its relations with Turkey and Iran, seems eerily like the demands made by Austria, with encouragement from Germany, that Serbia surrender its independence in 1914. Those events a century ago led to the First World War and we should not underestimate the current risks.President Moon Jae-in has a tremendous task ahead of him as he gears up to meet President Trump at one of the most dangerous moments in recent history. It would be great if the two could have an honest talk about their nations’ interests, find common ground somewhere and move forward in an effort to reduce the tensions in the region.
Koreans are focused on the THAAD issue and how Korea can somehow navigate its way between Chinese and American demands, but perhaps the greater issue will be how Korea can keep from being swept up in the most immediately dangerous conflict in the Middle East and show definitively that it will not support any military action against Iran. I fear this question may not even be on the list of those preparing for the summit.
Above all, Moon must start a broad dialogue with a large swath of Americans about how Korea and the United States can work together in many fields, from education and public policy, to their responses to climate change and the establishment of international norms. This move may seem off topic, but it is much more likely to gain lasting support for Korea in the United States, as opposed to agreements with Trump that can be overturned by a Tweet.
Korea is a nation that has been devoted to multilateralism and to the establishment of global norms since the time of King Gojong and that tradition should be reflected in the actions of President Moon. He should harken back to America’s obligations to international treaties and global norms at every moment, even if such words are irritating to the Trump administration, or even to many mainstream American politicians.
Moon must shift to a long-term strategy and stop playing for domestic political advantage. Although this demand may seem impossible, the stakes are simply too great. Moon would benefit from involving as many people as possible in this trip, academics, NGOs, experts on non-proliferation and others to make this a discussion that focuses on the real common interests of the United States and the Republic of Korea.
There is a tremendous temptation to try to engage President Trump through various indirect means. To engage with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, or others, and thereby to establish a back-channel for dialog that will advance Korea’s interests. Although such a move is quite strategic, it is ultimately a mistake because Korea’s strongest point, in light of the recent impeachment and election here, is its commitment to the rule of law and democratic practice. If anything, Korea must insist on following the rules in all interactions and a summit meeting that follows protocol to the letter. There should not be any room for backroom deals in this summit.
The reasons for such strictness are simple. Korea must burnish its credentials as a democratic leader and a nation that gives hope to many striving for a more transparent approach to international affairs. At the same time, there are extremely powerful factions within American society who will perceive close relations with the Trump administration as a strike against Korea.
Few world leaders have emerged from a summit meeting with Trump unscathed.
Finally, I would suggest that the only way forward concerning THAAD is to call for an international conference in Seoul to address how the international community should respond to the threat of new missile and drone technologies in the region at which experts who are not politicians address the serious new threats. The conference should be rooted in an objective analysis based on the scientific method. Such an investigation of the issue, something no longer happening in defense circles in Washington D.C. will position Korea as a leader and also allow Korea to deliver a response to the United States concerning missile defense which is not based on either fear of China, or on greed for military contracts.