In spite of his flamboyant rhetoric, U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been largely orthodox.
He talks of his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But in practice, he has followed the line of the U.S. security establishment, tearing up a Reagan-era nuclear accord and confronting Moscow in Ukraine.
He badmouths NATO. But he keeps U.S. troops in eastern Europe to protect the alliance.
But at the same time, he maintains Washington’s traditional gunboat diplomacy approach to Central and South America, encouraging regime change in Venezuela and threatening invasion if that end is not met.
His repudiation of Obama’s Iran nuclear pact is straight out of the Republican playbook. So is his animosity toward Cuba.
He is more aggressive in using tariffs to achieve his economic ends than his immediate predecessors were.
But in spite of his rhetoric, he has not tried to pull the U.S. out of the World Trade Organization. Nor has he withdrawn from other international institutions, like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund or United Nations.
With his steel and aluminum tariffs, he appears to have abandoned the practice of according Canada special status within the American empire. In the end, though, he did not kill the North American Free Trade Agreement that gives Canada privileged access to the U.S. market.
But Trump’s attempt to make peace with North Korea appears to be of a fundamentally different order. If he succeeds, he will make history.
Trump is not the first U.S. president to make a deal with North Korea. In 1994, Bill Clinton tried, in effect, to bribe Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program.
That attempt ultimately failed, with each side blaming the other.
Trump is, however, the first U.S. president to talk face-to-face with a North Korean leader. His meeting with dictator Kim Jong Un this week in Hanoi will be their second summit.
The official American position is that Kim must give up his nuclear weapons before anything else can happen. The official North Korean position is that each side must make concessions in order to meet the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea won’t be at the summit. But its support is crucial if any deal is to be made.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has suggested an intermediate path whereby his country would re-establish economic ties with the North, ties that were broken after the UN — at America’s behest — imposed sanctions against Pyongyang.
The other area where real progress can be made is the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. This has long been one of the North’s aims. South Korea is agreeable.
In the past, the U.S. has been reluctant to offer a peace treaty without getting anything in return. But with visions of a Nobel Peace Prize dancing before his eyes, Trump may be more amenable to the idea.
Can this week’s two-day summit accomplish anything? If the U.S. insists that North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons as a precondition for future action, then the answer is probably no.
Having become a nuclear state at great cost to itself, North Korea is unlikely to surrender the power and prestige that accompany this status.
It might be willing, however, to sign a treaty with the U.S. that limited the use of such weapons by both sides.
In short, there is room for unorthodox thinking here. Trump prides himself on being able to think outside the proverbial box. If he wants to get anywhere with North Korea, he will need to exercise that talent.
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.