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The Rashomon Effect in a Trump-Kim Summit

Photo by japanesefilmarchive | CC BY 2.0

A film made some 68 years ago, Rashomon, featured a murder described by four eyewitnesses in four mutually contradictory ways. The “Rashomon Effect” is now known as any phenomenon that is not proven by evidence, is described in very divergent fashions, and which is under pressure to achieve closure.

“The most mind-boggling diplomatic summit in history,” the upcoming possible meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un, is a case for the ages. The objective reality (should anyone care about it) is that the talks are likely doomed from the start. Credit South Korea for bringing the parties together, but Trump’s sheer incompetence and absolute dishonesty coupled with Kim’s iron-fisted empty rhetoric are a recipe for failure.

In negotiation there is a rule: trust is built when you make and keep agreements.

Trump has a long history of contempt for honoring agreements. He has promised to renegotiate our debt, NAFTA, the Iran Deal, and even his newborn steel and aluminum tariffs. He is a famous deadbeat, hundreds have sued him for nonpayment and headlines this week are full with the sordid details of his unsigned nondisclosure agreement over an affair he had with a porn star months after his son Barron was born (I don’t know what his vows to Melania were). He lied to his constituents 2,000 times in his first 355 days in office. Simply put: Trump cannot be trusted.

Kim also has a noteworthy history of dishonesty. Defectors lament the Kim family has never been honest to anyone. Kim’s human rights violations and brutality are well documented, and the cruelty of his gulags reads like a villain in Tolkien novel; his answer to high death rates in prison camps: just don’t record them!

The world doesn’t unite for much. Everyone but the U.S. (under Trump) is in on the Paris Accord. Everyone condemns North Korea for gross human rights violations: “Inmates – who can be imprisoned for life, along with three generations of their families, for anything deemed to be critical of the regime – are forced to survive by eating frogs, rats and picking corn kernels out of animal waste.”

This is the showdown of most dishonest vs. most depraved, but with a caveat—no preconditions. “The dialogue we desire is the one designed to discuss and resolve the issues of mutual concern on an equal footing between states.” It is hard to see the efficacy in a “maximum pressure campaign,” when the precondition of a willingness to denuclearize has been lost before starting. But, it is also folly to think Kim earns any legitimacy—any equal footing—by showcasing an ability to take advantage of Trump’s incompetence. Global respect for U.S. leadership has dropped to an all-time low in one year with Trump.

BATNA—Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement—is the most advantageous alternative course of action a party can take if negotiations fail and an agreement cannot be reached.

One can only hope the two narcissistic leaders don’t entertain the same bravado in person that the “bigger and better” red-button display on Twitter highlighted. A return to the compliments of the maniac “that you gotta give credit” would be equally dangerous. But in the bigger picture its hard to see any upside. What lies will be told? Will they beat the drums of war? Will this further degrade trust in U.S. leadership? Will greater incentive be provided to regimes looking to exploit this incompetence? One can hope that Trump doesn’t get the chance to use “my military,” and that Kim is not on a suicide mission, but it is hard to imagine any workable agreement reached between the duo of ruthless leader and pathological liar.

WATNA—Worst Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement—is the least advantageous alternative course of action a party can take if negotiations fail and an agreement cannot be reached.

The diplomats from South Korea (and the world) have a real chance to shine. Nuclear apocalypse has been at the doorstep for decades, the fallout (both literal and metaphorical) would be undeniable. Trump—a failure at foreign policy by all accounts in his first year—can hit reset on the rules of engagement. Kim’s victory over Trump can provide the means for saving-face by claiming to his people that he is standing up to the big bad bully. Without pointing out his failure, everyone can pander to Trump’s ego, and thank him for creating the opening.

There is a policy: we do not negotiate with terrorists. The belief is that such a policy would reduce the incentive terrorists otherwise have. The truth is that we negotiate with terrorists all the time as a tactical exchange and for strategic purposes. Kim Jong-un is such a person, his crimes against humanity too many to list. If Trump can broker a deal I’ll be a champion for his achievement, but his oafishness to date does not auger well.

If an enforceable agreement is reached that denuclearizes the Korean peninsula, no one will be happier than I, having spent a great deal of time there in my teaching career and having learned great respect for the Korean people. But I confess my trust in Trump and Kim is at the earned and observed level of zero. May they rise above it all and surprise us happily. I predict failure but I also hope I’m wrong.

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