Donald Trump is an exceptionally disappointing president whose misguided approach to foreign affairs was highlighted by the temper tantrum with which he concluded the G7 summit in Canada. Trump was so off the rails that the office of the French president released a statement declaring that “International co-operation cannot be dictated by fits of anger and throwaway remarks.” After Trump instructed his aides not to sign a communiqué between the seven nations, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “It’s actually not a real surprise, we have seen this with the climate agreement or the Iran deal. In a matter of seconds, you can destroy trust with 280 Twitter characters. To build that up again will take much longer.”
So it is entirely appropriate to be skeptical about Trump’s ability to deal in a productive manner with foreign leaders. But that skepticism ought not prevent Americans from encouraging whatever positive steps may be taken by Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the historic Singapore summit.
Congressman Ro Khanna offers an example of how this can be done. The California Democrat has been one of President Trump’s most ardent critics on domestic and foreign-policy issues. Yet he has been outspoken in expressing his hopes for talks that seek to dial down tensions on the Korean Peninsula. “The only way to solve this conflict with North Korea is bilateral diplomacy,” argues the Congressional Progressive Caucus vice chair. “There are no military solutions.”
When Trump and members of his administration seemed to derail the process in May, Khanna urged the president to “reverse his terrible decision to withdraw from this historic summit with Kim Jong-Un,” and said, “Continuing down the path of aggression will only bring us closer to all-out nuclear war.”
When the summit got back on track, Khanna celebrated the breakthrough. That’s because, he explains, face-to-face talks represent “a major opportunity to end the Korean War which has continued for almost seven decades.”
The congressman wants the process to work, and he knows this will require initial flexibility on all sides. To that end, Khanna has chastised top Democrats who tried even before the talks began to establish rigorous standards for what would be acceptable in a deal. After Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, and several other senators signed on to a letter that was described as “a set of tough demands for any prospective nuclear pact,” Khanna signaled that he was not on the same page with his Schumer.
“Let me be clear,” he declared. “Chuck Schumer does not speak for the Democratic Party concerning North Korea and Iran. It’s sad that his hawkish message is undermining [South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s] diplomatic efforts. He does not represent the new generation or new progressive foreign policy vision.”
Khanna, a House Armed Services Committee member, complains that the Senate’s top Democrat “is not articulating a clear distinction from the neoconservative view that has gotten us into this mess.”
On Monday, as US and North Korea officials prepared for the summit, Khanna was one of 15 progressive Democratic members of the House who signed a letter to President Trump that hailed the embrace of diplomacy and said: “We remain concerned that some, from both parties and inside and outside of your administration, seek to scuttle progress by attempting to limit the parameters of the talks, including by insisting on full and immediate denuclearization or other unrealistic commitments by North Korea at an early date.”
“Requiring unreasonable concessions before talking, or early in the negotiations process, is precisely why this conflict remains unresolved,” explained the letter, which was signed by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Mark Pocan (D-WI), as well as Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democratic who has for decades been the chamber’s steadiest advocate for diplomacy and peace. “Instead, we emphasize the tremendous value of incremental progress that advances the potential for future agreements. Among the positive steps that you can commit to right away are: pledges or agreements to formally end the 68-year war, ending the practice of US-ROK ‘decapitation’ military exercises, and support for important cooperative efforts such as vital humanitarian assistance, parliamentarian dialogue and exchanges, reunions between Koreans and Korean American families, and the repatriation of US service member remains.”
The nuanced letter concluded by affirming that “we stand ready to provide support for potentially historic progress made through diplomacy, but will continue to stand with our ally South Korea in vehemently opposing any return to threats of illegal and unacceptable military action.”
The letter highlights the determination of Khanna and a growing number of progressive House members to promote diplomacy. Recalling the failures on the part of Republicans and Democrats that led to the Iraq War, these young members say that it is time to seek new approaches that abandon Cold War–style saber rattling and promote savvy statecraft, international cooperation, and negotiations. With regard to North Korea and other countries with which tensions have arisen, Khanna and a number of Congressional Progressive Caucus members have repeatedly argued against military threats and the prospect of first-strike attacks, making the case that “it’s imperative to our nation’s national security to push for diplomatic efforts” and that “the United States should do all in its power to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to nuclear war.”
“The Democrats need to be unified in a vision encouraging diplomacy,” Khanna recently told the Mic network. “The Senate should not be making a demand that North Korea needs to agree to complete denuclearization for there to be any concessions on our side.”
That’s a smart stance, which is shared by longtime advocates for diplomacy and disarmament. The Friends Committee on National Legislation has been urging the Trump administration to “look towards the tools of diplomacy and peace.” It has also been telling Americans that “your representatives and senators need to know that their constituents support courageous stands for diplomacy and peace.” Activists with the Korea Peace Network have been in Washington this week, lobbying members of Congress to support diplomacy in order “to continue the momentum for peace.”
Khanna is not naive about the challenges to maintaining that momentum. And he is certainly not naive about Donald Trump. He has condemned and complimented the president, as part of a broader effort to get decision makers in Washington “to choose diplomacy over preemptive military action.”
The congressman’s bottom line across many months of advocacy has been a serious one that rejects partisan positioning to make the essential point that “In this volatile time, we need thoughtful, consistent policy—not threats that bring us closer to the brink of war.”