Trump’s right: Nu­clear deals are for suck­ers

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP/ED - BY MARKOS KOUNALAKIS Markos Kounalakis is a se­nior fel­low at Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity and vis­it­ing fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion. Con­tact him at markos@stan­ford.edu. © 2017, McClatchy Wash­ing­ton Bu­reau Dis­trib­uted by Tri­bune Con­tent Agency, LLC.

Nuke deals are all the rage these days. The United Na­tions sees nu­clear ac­cords as a path to world peace. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama worked to­ward a “global zero” nu­cle­ar­free fu­ture.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, on the other hand, is highly skep­ti­cal of deals with Iran and North Korea be­cause he un­der­stands what Tehran and Py­ongyang lead­ers al­ready know: Nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment deals are for suck­ers.

Coun­tries gen­er­ally balk at giv­ing up their hard-won and ex­pen­sive nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties be­cause nu­clear weapons are a time-tested and re­li­able de­ter­rent. Giv­ing up these weapons re­quires faith that any agree­ment inked is rock solid and that the coun­tries agree­ing to uni­lat­eral nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment are as­sured they will not wind up like Ukraine or Libya — in­vaded or over­thrown.

Trump does not in­spire this faith. Nei­ther does he have faith that the other side will do as it’s told.

That’s why the Iran deal may soon get scrapped and why Trump tweeted at Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son to stop “wast­ing his time” work­ing to ne­go­ti­ate one with Kim Jong Un. De­pend­ing on un­pre­dictable pol­icy pro­nounce­ment or stated goals, treaty break­downs could lead to a Mid­dle East arms race or a reignited North Korean con­flict.

If the Iran deal is bro­ken by the United States, there will cer­tainly not be a North Korean deal, or any fu­ture deals with ris­ing nu­clear states, be­cause for­eign lead­ers will in­stantly have ev­i­dence of what they have al­ways sus­pected: These agree­ments are a trap. A deal must be worth more than the pa­per on which it is writ­ten. And his­tory shows, it is not.

Trump al­ready has dumped the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, with­drawn from the Paris cli­mate ac­cords, and de­cided (but not an­nounced) whether to re­cer­tify the Iran deal. Ev­ery agree­ment, treaty, com­mit­ment and pinky-prom­ise made by Amer­ica is now in ques­tion. A few months back, even NATO won­dered if col­lec­tive de­fense was on the ta­ble.

“Global state­craft re­lies on trust, rep­u­ta­tion and cred­i­bil­ity, which can be all too eas­ily squan­dered,” wrote my Hoover In­sti­tu­tion col­league, for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Ge­orge Schultz, in mak­ing the busi­ness case for stick­ing with the Paris cli­mate deal. “If Amer­ica fails to honor a global agree­ment that it helped forge, the reper­cus­sions will un­der­cut our diplo­matic pri­or­i­ties across the globe.” North Korean nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment is one of those pri­or­i­ties.

Vladimir Putin, like Trump, does not con­cern him­self with done deals, con­ven­tion or ex­pec­ta­tion. In 1994, the Bu­dapest Mem­o­ran­dum was signed by the U.S., U.K., Rus­sia and Ukraine. When the Soviet Union dis­solved, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nu­clear arse­nal and the mem­o­ran­dum called for all 1,900 nu­clear weapons to be moved to and dis­as­sem­bled in Rus­sia. In ex­change for the nukes, the par­ties all agreed to “re­spect the in­de­pen­dence and sovereignty and ex­ist­ing bor­ders of Ukraine,” in­clud­ing Crimea, of course, and to “re­frain from the threat or use of force” in the post-Soviet coun­try.

What is the like­li­hood that Putin would have in­vaded, oc­cu­pied and an­nexed all of Crimea or started a hy­brid war in Ukraine’s Don­bass re­gion if Kiev still con­trolled its arse­nal? Zilch.

The les­son learned by other as­pir­ing nu­clear pow­ers?

It pays to have nukes. Putin is not the only dou­ble­crosser. NATO’s du­plic­ity in Libya pro­vides a les­son for po­ten­tial dis­ar­ma­ment part­ners. It is im­pos­si­ble to de­fend Muam­mar Gaddafi’s mur­der­ous rule or to be crit­i­cal of the sense of ur­gency and hu­man­i­tar­ian im­pulse for regime change felt by the world and led by France and Bri­tain. But here, too, dic­ta­tors and despots grew to un­der­stand that even a dis­ar­ma­ment deal with the West is not a guar­an­tee of sur­vival. Gaddafi gave up his WMD and nu­clear-weapons pro­gram in 2003 and, in re­turn, saw painful sanc­tions re­moved and re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to join the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. Then he was killed. Long story short, it was a bad deal for him per­son­ally. The coun­try has not fared that well, ei­ther.

That all hap­pened way back when Obama was pres­i­dent, but dic­ta­tors have pretty good mem­o­ries. As a re­sult, Kim Jong Un is look­ing closely both at bad prece­dents and Trump’s po­ten­tially reneg­ing on the rel­a­tively fresh Iran nu­clear deal.

Iran is key. If Trump grudg­ingly re­cer­ti­fies the de­spised Iran deal for a third time, then maybe North Korea might be open to ne­go­ti­at­ing away its own nukes. Un­likely, but pos­si­ble. Es­pe­cially with a lit­tle stiff prod­ding from Bei­jing.

All in­di­ca­tions are that Iran, de­spite its rep­re­hen­si­ble regime and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions both at home and abroad, is fol­low­ing the deal’s con­di­tions. Un­der those cir­cum­stances, Trump’s team fa­vors re­cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Sec­re­tary of De­fense James Mat­tis (Dis­clo­sure: Mat­tis is also a Hoover col­league) told Congress that the U.S. needs to stick with the Iran deal. A still-serv­ing Sec­re­tary Tiller­son con­cedes, “Iran is in tech­ni­cal com­pli­ance with the agree­ment,” even though he holds his nose and be­lieves Tehran is vi­o­lat­ing the ac­cord’s “spirit.”

Trump may be try­ing to im­i­tate Mo­hammed Ali and ag­gres­sively “rope-a-dope” Kim into a nu­clear deal. The pres­i­dent’s global rep­u­ta­tion, how­ever, as a some­times (to some peo­ple) charm­ing but blunt pre­var­i­ca­tor is not likely to trick Kim into an act of self-top­pling po­lit­i­cal sui­cide. Which means that Trump might just do as he tweets by or­der­ing a pre­emp­tive strike on Kim to try to land a sucker punch.

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