At the United Nations this week, U.S. President Donald Trump smilingly teased another summit to discuss nuclear weapons with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then angrily denounced reports that he had sought a similar meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The disparity reflected Trump’s personalist approach to nuclear weapons: he rejects any policy associated with his predecessor while embracing those leaders who flatter his sense of himself as a supreme dealmaker. On substance alone, it’s impossible to understand the decision to reject the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as “the worst deal ever” while embracing a denuclearization process with North Korea that imposes no requirements at all. But if Trump is prioritizing his feelings over his policy preferences, the two actions make sense.
A personalist approach to diplomacy that goes case by case is not necessarily a bad one. What works in one situation may not work in another. But when it comes to global efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons, the double standard inherent in Trump’s approach presents a mortal threat. Nonproliferation diplomacy requires sustained cooperation among all the significant powers, even when, in a particular case, their narrow interests do not align. Making exceptions undermines the very enterprise of setting aside narrow interests in support of broader ones, and leaves open the interpretation that the United States sees nonproliferation efforts as little more than politics by other means.
U.S. diplomats have long struggled to persuade China, Russia, and other countries that U.S. concerns about proliferation aren’t really about regime change. Although this has been an uphill battle, the strong sanctions placed on Iran before the JCPOA and those imposed on North Korea today show the value of sustained diplomacy. Now Trump has dismissed all that as a sham, throwing out one carefully negotiated agreement and declaring another problem solved after a single summit. It’s unlikely that China and Russia will ever
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