Why talk of Trump winning the Nobel Peace Prize was always premature

by Paul Thomas / 17 May, 2018
Will Donald Trump bring fire and fury or peace in our time? Photo/Getty Images

Will Donald Trump bring fire and fury or peace in our time? Photo/Getty Images

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They say everything in life is a trade-off. The trade-off for peace on the Korean Peninsula, it would seem, is US President Donald Trump’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

After North Korea’s absolute ruler Kim Jong-un and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in joined hands and declared an end to 70 years of hot and cold conflict, the latter nominated Trump for the award. Eighteen of Trump’s Republican henchmen in Congress wrote to the Nobel Committee urging recognition of his “tireless work to bring peace to our world”. (I see an issue with the word “tireless”, as due diligence would surely require a comparative analysis between the time and effort devoted to making the world a safer place and downtime in front of Fox News and on the golf course.)

Not to be outdone, broadcaster Mike Hosking has declared Trump “a shoo-in” for the Nobel. Although Hosking, writing in his column two weeks ago, suspects “no one really knows” why Kim has gone from rocket man to peacenik, he obviously doesn’t number himself among the mystified: “With a tough stance, hard policy and very specific threats, Trump has managed to do what no one has in decades … Trump stared him down.”

Galling as the prospect of Trump becoming a Nobel laureate may be, it would be a small price to pay should the Korean leaders’ crowd-pleasing gestures and sunny declarations herald a golden era of national reconciliation, denuclearisation, peace and prosperity. Sadly – though not for those who can’t bear the idea of Trump being lauded – there are compelling reasons for scepticism.

To begin with, we’ve not yet reached the end of the beginning: the parties are still negotiating over what will be on the table in Singapore on June 12, but North Korea is already threatening to abort the process if it turns out the US is trying “to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated the US will settle for nothing less. Second, Hosking notwithstanding, this isn’t unprecedented: in 1992, 1994, 2005 and 2012 North Korea signed denuclearisation agreements which it then proceeded to flout. Indeed, for most of the Trump administration’s short and turbulent life, the message has been that negotiating with the North Koreans is pointless because they can’t be trusted to abide by any agreement.

Third, Korea-watchers are inclined to think we’re witnessing the unfolding of Kim’s long-term strategy as opposed to him being cowed into mending his ways by Trump’s name-calling and promise of “fire and fury”.

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in are still negotiating over negotiations. Photo/Getty Images

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in are still negotiating over negotiations. Photo/Getty Images

Van Jackson spent five years as a Pentagon strategist and policy adviser on North Korea before becoming a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University. In a recent commentary in Politico Magazine, he pointed out that over the past six years, US pressure has had the effect of accelerating North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, “which is why the idea that maximum pressure brought about any of the recent events is a farce”.

The assumption that Kim blinked ignores the reality that he has a relatively strong hand by virtue of his nuclear arsenal and the artillery deployments that threaten the South Korean capital, Seoul. As former Trump adviser Steve Bannon put it when tensions were running high last year, “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons … there’s no military solution here.”

Kim’s hand was further strengthened last November when the North successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with the theoretical capacity to strike the US mainland. With that development, wrote Jackson, Kim could declare “mission accomplished” on his goal of achieving and demonstrating a reliable nuclear deterrent and turn his attention to his country’s dire economic situation. Hence, the subsequent charm offensive: “Diplomacy is a low-cost means of getting sanctions relief.”

International pariah

Having acquired a nuclear deterrent, at the cost of becoming an international pariah and subjecting his long-suffering people to terrible privation, Kim is unlikely to give it up. Jackson scoffs at the idea: “Nukes play a central role in how North Korea thinks about its own security against the outside world. There is no North Korean theory of security without nuclear weapons – they believe it’s the only thing that will ultimately protect them from the US.”

At the very least, it would seem utterly unrealistic to believe the North will give up its nukes and abandon its belligerent posture without a substantial quid pro quo. Not surprisingly, those who think Trump has already done enough to earn the Nobel Peace Prize aren’t sweating the small stuff, as in what the trade-off might be. An obvious demand would be for an end to the US military presence in South Korea. If the war is officially over and harmony reigns, what need is there for 28,000 US troops to be stationed in the south?

Trump has floated the idea of troop withdrawals as part of his “America First” narrative in which so-called allies are actually bludgers freeloading on the US taxpayer. However, it seems doubtful that his generals would be as sanguine about a measure with significant implications for the strategic balance in Asia. Furthermore, US withdrawal would amount to a decoupling of South Korea and America – a giant step towards the realisation of the Kim dynasty’s dream of reunifying Korea on its terms.

The Nobel committee would have other issues to consider, such as the fact that Trump’s peaceful inclinations don’t extend to Iran. This week, he pulled the US out of the agreement, painstakingly negotiated by the Obama administration, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, under which Iran agreed to mothball its nuclear programme and allow regular inspections of its facilities in return for sanctions relief. Days earlier, Trump’s cartoonish surrogate Rudy Giuliani promised a receptive audience that his boss is “committed to regime change” in Iran. As Iraq discovered, “regime change” is neoconservative code for immensely destructive, unimaginably expensive and ultimately pointless war.

Nobel Peace Prize. Photo/Getty Images

History in the making

It remains to seen if what we are witnessing on the Korean Peninsula really is, as Hosking put it, “history in the making” that warrants the Nobel. If it doesn’t turn out to be a tactical feint or strategic shift from North Korea, then surely Trump should share the award with Kim, without whom, as Oscar winners say, “none of this would have been possible”. There are precedents: in 1973, US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho were joint recipients for negotiating the Paris Peace Accords that wound down the Vietnam War (Tho refused to accept it). Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shared the 1994 award with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. A year later, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo Accords they had negotiated.

Scandinavian awards committees have made some questionable decisions over the years. However, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the head of a totalitarian regime who regularly eliminates potential rivals, real and imagined, and operates a gulag-style system of brainwashing, slave labour and repression, would discredit the entire concept to the point of rendering it null and void.

If Trump wins the Nobel without genuine peace being achieved, it will simply be another grotesque episode of his unreality show. If history really is made, then by all means give it to him. It won’t change the fact that he’s manifestly unfit, in terms of temperament, intellect, character and morality, for the office he occupies. After all, Adolf Hitler made the trains run on time.

This is an updated version of an article that was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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