When US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President/Premier Mikhail Gorbachev met during the famous Reykjavik Summit in 1986, both leaders had a strong desire to negotiate the elimination or reduction of nuclear weapons. Reagan was originally a staunch critic of arms control. It is said that he had a change of heart, however, after watching the film The Day After, which depicts a nuclear attack on US soil, and was swayed by US public opinion that was largely opposed to nuclear weapons and their use. He wanted, at certain times, to avoid mutually assured destruction with the Soviet Union, and other times to rid the world entirely of nuclear weapons. He eventually engaged Gorbachev directly to accomplish these security goals. Although originally dismissed by US officials as “propaganda,” Gorbachev sought the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons the world over and proposed a plan to accomplish this by the year 2000.
The process was typical of arms control agreements, which require a significant amount of sustained, high-level political will. Political will drives both drives all parties to come to the negotiation table (normally prepared with proposals or pre-negotiated texts) and sustains negotiations during their inevitably challenging periods to produce a final agreement. Whether US President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jung Un’s Singapore Summit will produce any tangible results hinges on this factor. Thus far, the summit has none of the hallmarks of previous arms control negotiations that succeeded, in part, due to this political will.
Reagan and Gorbachev first met in Geneva in 1985, where they discussed freezes on and reductions to strategic (long range), intermediate range, and defensive weapons. They were unable to reach an agreement at the Geneva Summit, but issued a joint statement on their shared understanding that a nuclear war could never be won, and their shared goal that one should never be fought.
They met again in Reykjavik the following year. At Reykjavik, the intense two-day, round-the-clock summit was sustained on the sheer intensity and commitment of the two leaders and their teams. In the end, it was close but no cigar. They were unable to reach an agreement and the negotiations fell apart in the final hours. Reagan and Gorbachev would eventually ink an agreement at the Washington Summit the following year. Albeit narrower in scope than the originally proposed agreements, the resulting hard-won Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated all short- and intermediate-range nuclear and conventional missiles and their launchers. Notably, by the time the Washington Summit and treaty signing took place, most of the details of the agreement had already been negotiated, and the treaty was the only arms control agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. The INF Treaty was the product of sustained high-level political will.
US President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jung Un’s Singapore Summit appears to be the INF process in reverse: Trump and Kim used political will to conduct a substance-free initial summit and inked an “agreement” devoid of meaningful arms control measures. We can’t be entirely confident about the motivations driving Trump’s political will. At certain times it seemed he was motivated by his campaign promise to meet with Kim. At others, it seemed as if it was, as Trump himself said during the press conference on the heels of the summit, “because nuclear is always number one to me.” He was also possibly motivated to counter Obama-era policies in this area. And we may never truly understand what role conversations with his “brilliant genius” professor uncle played. Moreover, we don’t know very much at all about Chairman Kim’s motivations to come to the table. Certainly though, South Korean President Moon Jae In deserves considerable credit for making the summit possible. To get the North-South peace treaty he so badly desires, he is willing to rid South Korea of US tactical nuclear weapons — talk about political will.
Whatever Trump and Kim’s motivations, a long road lays ahead before any agreement is reached and signed that yields a North Korea that is “no longer a nuclear threat.” But for all this to work, both sides will have to sustain their high levels of political will beyond the photo op that was the Singapore Summit. Trump’s famously short attention span may pose a problem in this regard. For the time being, it seems, both leaders should hold off on congratulating themselves.
Dr. Amy J. Nelson is currently a Robert Bosch Fellow in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations, where she is researching new European defense initiatives and Germany’s capacity in the development of dual-use technologies. She is also a Research Associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.