If nothing else, Thursday’s dramatic announcement of the first-ever meeting between an American president and North Korea’s dictator has succeeded in changing the subject—from an alleged affair with a porn star to the serious business of dealing with the nuclear threat from the world’s most hostile regime in Pyongyang.
But beyond his immediate PR crisis, the idea of Donald Trump as a world-historical deal maker is something the president has been talking about since he became a candidate two years ago, claiming he could “get along” with Kim Jong Un because of his skills as a real estate negotiator.
Going even further back, Trump has been talking about making the “deal of the century” on nuclear weapons ever since he first popped up on the national scene in the 1980s. Back then, of course, he was going to make that phenomenal deal on nuclear arms control with the leader of the Soviet Union.
Trump as Grand Negotiator is a narrative the White House is sure to push for all it is worth. So it behooves observers to focus on the substance rather than getting lost in the atmospherics. And that means answering hard questions about the rationale for America’s military presence in South Korea and the necessity of U.S. military might in Asia as a counter to the growing political, military and economic power of China.
It’s worth remembering that as a “nationalist” not a “globalist,” the president has in the past questioned the purpose and the price tag of U.S. military forces deployed abroad. Because we know Pyongyang’s decades-long goal has been to see off U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, there seems little doubt that Kim will be probing Trump to try to undermine the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense and to see what it will take to achieve a U.S. troop withdrawal.