AMAC Exclusive by Aaron Kliegman
Three years ago this week, then-President Trump met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore for the first-ever meeting between leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. It’s fitting that the anniversary of the Singapore Summit comes as President Biden is set to meet with another sinister dictator, Vladimir Putin, in Geneva on Wednesday.
The contrast between how Trump and Biden approached the lead-up to these summits is stark—and these different approaches tell us much about Biden’s chances for success next week.
Ten months before the Singapore Summit, Trump famously threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if it endangered the United States. His comment came hours after news reports revealed American intelligence agencies concluded North Korea had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead to fit on its missiles.
The following month, Trump stood before the United Nations and gave a stark warning.
“The United States has great strength and patience,” he said, “but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Meanwhile, in the months leading up to the summit, the Trump administration imposed harsh economic sanctions on North Korea while deploying a missile-defense system to South Korea. At the same time, however, the administration was in direct contact with the North Koreans, pursuing possible diplomatic talks.
This was a strategy of engagement — but one supported by credible military deterrence and severe economic sanctions. It was clearly this unrelenting pressure, combined with the offer of engagement, that led the North Korean dictator to finally change his behavior.
Trump went out of his way to communicate to the North Koreans that they needed the talks far more than he did. In fact, he suddenly canceled the summit less than three weeks before the planned date because of what he called the North Korean leader’s “tremendous anger and open hostility.”
Trump’s gambit worked: North Korea immediately came groveling back to the Trump administration, expressing its “willingness to sit down face-to-face with the U.S. and resolve issues anytime and in any format.”
Having solidified his upper hand, Trump then reversed the cancellation, announced the summit was back on, and history was made in Singapore.
The story of how Biden has laid the groundwork for his summit with Putin is the exact opposite. Rather than coming from a position of strength and deterring the Russian leader, Biden enters the summit, having made a series of extraordinary concessions that have evidently only emboldened Putin.
In early April, the Biden administration canceled plans to send U.S. Navy destroyers to the Black Sea, which is crucial to Russian strategy. The reason for canceling the naval deployment is obvious: Biden fears an escalation with Putin that gets out of control.
Indeed, a few weeks later, Biden said he’s “not going to seek escalation” with Russia. That comment came after Biden actually imposed new, limited sanctions on the Kremlin but made clear “now is the time to de-escalate” and “the way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process.”
The message to Putin was clear: Escalate, and Biden will back down. Not exactly “fire and fury.”
Earlier this year, massive anti-government protests erupted in Russia after Putin attempted to poison his chief opponent, Alexei Navalny, and then imprisoned him in Russia. But Biden never supported the protesters or called on Putin to step down from power — despite previously calling the Russian leader a “killer” and boasting how he once told Putin to his face that he had no soul.
Perhaps most importantly, Biden last month chose to waive sanctions on the company behind Nord Stream 2, a Russian gas pipeline to Europe that bypasses Ukraine. Completing the pipeline is one of Russia’s most important foreign policy objectives, as it will not only put a lot of money in the Kremlin’s pockets but also give Moscow significant leverage over Europe — especially U.S. allies like Germany.
Of course, Biden made his decision after shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline, which would create thousands of American jobs and simultaneously improve America’s energy security.
Presumably, Biden approved the Russian pipeline because he was desperate for a summit with Putin for months to burnish his foreign policy record after months of missteps and setbacks.
All indications are that the administration was hellbent on a meeting, no matter what. The day after Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko ordered the hijacking of a flight and the kidnapping of a journalist, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met with his Russian counterpart and spoke of “normalizing relations” with Russia.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to wage war in Ukraine while aiding and abetting cyberattacks against American companies and government agencies.
In short, Putin is clearly not deterred; he is emboldened, and he is publicly humiliating Joe Biden. This is the context overshadowing the coming summit in Geneva.
The difference in approaches between Trump and Biden in preparing for their summits is striking — and revealing.
When Trump met Kim, they failed to reach a formal deal, but both men reached what was effectively an informal détente — a détente that was only possible because Kim feared what Trump might do.
When Biden meets Putin, there will be no such fear, or deterrence, or pressure. If anything, Putin seems poised to have the upper hand. The reason why is simple: Desperation and concessions are not the cornerstones of a sound strategy going into a summit.
Biden doesn’t have to threaten fire and fury, but diplomacy without the threat of military force and economic pressure isn’t diplomacy at all. It’s called appeasement.