The Kim-Trump summit: The vassal’s view Down Under

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Welcome to the Trump-Kim show (Image via donkeyhotey via Flickr)

The U.S. and North Korea summit drew international attention, Binoy Kampmark comments on the perspective from our Department of Foreign Affairs.

TO SEE THE REACTION of Australia’s political and media establishment to the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore was to be reminded about the nature of fractured lenses and misguided assumptions. From afar, problems are either magnified or diminished, a situation made more problematic given a state’s satellite status and geographical proximity.

The ABC had felt it important enough to send two mainstays to cover the summit on Sentosa Island and the clichés clotted the narrative. President Donald Trump was anointed as the disrupter of international relations; Kim Jong-un was considered the opportunist who dared.

The view from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was confused. Washington and Pyongyang have taken the lead, leaving allies slumped and bothered. To see Kim wandering the streets of Singapore was particularly irksome for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

She observed before the two men got down to hashing out the threadbare details that would form the joint statement:

“It has been a rogue state. It is in defiance of numerous UN Security Council resolutions. It needs to become a law-abiding nation once more. And this summit is the very first step down that path.”

Ironically enough, the step to becoming a rule abider is to firstly break the rules with fist punching defiance. Scorn the others and prepare for conflict.

A cruel, if unpalatable, truth presented itself in Singapore: Had Pyongyang been meek, compliant and amenable, it would have ceased to exist as a regime, going the way of other labeled hermits of outlaw status — Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya are merely a few prominent examples.

In April, Bishop sounded the note of a doubting Thomas in the wake of undertakings being made by Pyongyang to Washington. 

“In the past, North Korea has made promises and then failed to honour them, so we need to see verifiable steps that it will abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons program.”

The theme of what constitutes the international committee of nations is a favourite in Canberra — a line normally used against regimes deemed beyond the pale. A “rules-based” order is code for U.S. drafters and the extensive reach of its lawmakers. This stance is endorsed with automatic ease by the drafters of Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, those who don America’s strategic dress.

In the words of the document:

‘The Government is committed to making practical and effective military contributions… to maintain the rules-based order.’

Washington’s stalking and inducing shadow tends to go by the wayside when it comes to general discussions on the subject. 

Dr Peter Layton stated rather innocently for the Australian Institute of International Affairs:

‘Under a rules-based order, states only take actions that conform to agreed rules and norms.’

But Layton does pick up on an important deficiency in this approach:

‘A rules-based order is inherently unresponsive to change and can badly lag real-world events.’

Often, the designation of states that breach this order is selective. While Canberra’s pen pushers and elected representatives are very happy to break laws when required – take the issue of refugees, asylum seekers and the degradations of indefinite detention – righteousness shall always out.  

It pays, when consulting the making of Australian foreign policy, to go to the White House press releases, or notes from the U.S. State Department and The Pentagon. Bishop, in terms of her functions, is at best a lower desk State Department official prone to test the winds from across the pond. 

Pyongyang is more than aware of this, scolding in October last year of Canberra’s willingness to join the “frenzied political and military provocations of the U.S.”

The foreign minister, noted the State news agency:

“...personally expressed her support for the stand of the U.S. to consider all options including the use of force towards the DPRK.” 

Australia, it charged, had allowed itself to become a “frontline base for the U.S. invasion of the DPRK.”

Bishop did nothing to disabuse the accusers, retreating behind the cover of propriety and good conduct. 

“Australia will continue to work with allies, friends and partners on a collective strategy to impose maximum pressure – diplomatic and economic – on the North Korean regime so it changes its behaviour and we compel it back to the negotiating table.”

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been even more direct about what conflict between the U.S. and the DPRK might entail. 

In a radio interview, he outlined back in August 2017:

“So let’s be very clear about that, if there is an attack on the United States by North Korea, then the ANZUS Treaty will be invoked and Australia will come to the aid of the United States just as if there was an attack on Australia, the United States would come to our aid.”

The winds on and towards North Korea have changed since, ceasing to be entirely glacial. In some cases, they are even conciliatory, leaving Bishop and Turnbull puzzled. As has the unqualified approach on the part of Washington for the “rules-based” formula, adjusted by such documents as the 2018 US National Defense Strategy. In the document, the authors insist that a realistic balancing of interests must take place alongside the rules.

One almost heretical remark states:

‘America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.’ 

But Bishop cannot let on, her front erroneous in assuming that the rules are universal, liberal and objective, the stuff of international relations magic. The Trump-Kim show supplies a different bag of tricks and they have only just begun.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark and email him at bkampmark@gmail.com.

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