Politics at the Water’s Edge

Politics and Nonpartisan Foreign Policy

There are different opinions as to who first echoed the classic phrase, “Politics Stop at the Water’s Edge,” but both parties have made that assertion when they were the party in power seeking nonpartisan support for its foreign policy.   In an article published on the Oxford University Press blog, its author Lewis L Gould notes that in 1915 the then young Walter Llippman wrote, “the war has shown us that we live in a society larger than any nation, that American politics cannot stop at the water’s edge, and that the dangerous states of the world — the Ba[l]kans, China, Mexico, Turkey and so on — are as much a part of the American problem as Tammany Hall and the New Jersey swamps.”

Relevancy Today

Today we can update Lippman’s statement by adding Russia, Iran, and North Korea to the list with China to more accurately reflect the principal adversaries that now consume foreign policy strategies. Given the sharp divide on how this President conducts foreign policy on issues such as trade, global climate change, immigration, the Iranian Nuclear agreement, NATO and Russian aggression, it is just not possible to achieve political unanimity on these issues. Yet the President is soon to embark on a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un with the potential for success, deceptive success or even failure with potentially disastrous consequences.

Danger to the President as Negotiator

There is much to be concerned about this narcissistic individual and self-proclaimed excellent negotiator. The fact is, Donald Trump triumphs in a negotiation when he can bully his opposite number into submission—his concept of a zero-sum game: I win, you lose. But when his opposing negotiator or negotiators are of equal or greater strength, he folds. Witness his surrender in the Trump University lawsuit, despite his vow never to settle.  And there is another danger. Feeding his narcissism, telling him how wonderful he is, might induce him to accept terms he would not otherwise—a possibility enhanced by his already proclaimed responsibility for progress to a peace accord and suggestions that he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his rush to the Nobel Prize, there is the danger of him accepting terms that would not be acceptable to more sober-minded individuals. On the other hand, there is the opposite danger that he reacts in a volatile way if he feels so aggrieved by something said or suggested.

The Possibilities

So, what are the possibilities? The best, of course, would be a treaty that calls for a verifiable removal of all nuclear weapons from North Korea over a period of time accompanied by a corresponding relaxation of sanctions and introduction of normal relations, the latter two proceeding only in concert with the former. The worst could take two forms. First, relaxation of sanctions without verification of removal of nuclear weapons, or a so angered Trump that a preemptive attack on North Korea initiates a nuclear response aimed at the United States and/or its allies. Then there is also the possibility that nothing happens, and we return to the status quo—more sanctions and more belligerency.

The President’s Advisers

In a February Wall Street Journal op-ed, John Bolton, Trump’s new National Security adviser advocated attacking North Korea preemptively, which raises the question to what extent he will be seeking a peaceful resolution of this issue. His presence suggests he would press the President not to accept any deal, but if forced to go along with the President’s wishes, at the very least, he would likely insist that it meet very stringent standards to protect the United States.

Which brings us to the one individual who may hold the key to a successful conclusion of an agreement with North Korea and that is Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State. A Harvard graduate, former military officer, U.S. Representative and CIA Director, he is considered very conservative and hawkish.  Yet I am hopeful that he is also a realist who will not rush to war, but will look to find agreement with satisfactory safeguards consistent with the Ronald Reagan doctrine of “Trust but Verify“ to protect against violations harmful to the United States.

The Need for Unity

Despite my disagreement with virtually the entire direction of Trump’s foreign policy agenda, as we approach this summit, it is time to stop at the water’s edge; time to make this a nonpartisan sendoff with unified political support to achieve a peaceful accord and the sincere hope that the President is successful in reaching an agreement that reduces the threat of nuclear war, not just today, but for years to come.

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