Intentions Matter More Than Weapons

Changing the intentions the U.S. and North Korea have towards each other in the long run is more important than possession of nuclear weapons themselves, argues Graham Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

The fascinating, elaborately choreographed diplomatic pas de deux in Singapore between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un mesmerized the world over two days. Most pundits look at the (perhaps more than) half empty glass of water on the table. Indeed, most Democrats and all Trump-haters refuse to grant the summit any worth lest it lend strength to Trump’s political power. The high priests of denuclearization (an admittedly arcane discipline) are parsing the agreement; so far they have found very little of nuclear substance.

Yet instant gratification in the quest for immediate and complete denuclearization of North Korea is highly unrealistic given the dark layers of past conflict. Worse, evaluating the summit by the degree of denuclearization achieved  is truly naive in geopolitical terms. This step taken at the summit, like it or not, is just that, a first but very significant step along a long and important road. This first step indeed may never be succeeded by a second—but the chances are good that it will. How it will all come out in the end is anybody’s guess.

Yet the calming of the rabid language and ferocity of threats between the U.S. and North Korea over decades must be considered a major accomplishment in itself. It was not necessarily destined to happen at all. You don’t reach settlements against a backdrop of escalating rage. The emergence of a new civility and the de-demonization of the other party is an vital prerequisite for any further progress. Without it you have nothing.

And there is a yet more important strategic point about nuclear weapons that many critics miss. In the end, it is the nature and intentions of those who possess nuclear weapons that matter, often much more than the mere possession of them. The British and the French could both blow the U.S. out of the water tomorrow with their nuclear arsenals. Yet we don’t lose sleep over it. Why not? Because we have some reasonable confidence that the intentions of the British and the French governments are extremely unlikely to bring about a nuclear attack on the US.  

First contact. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

China today can devastate the U.S. with its nuclear weapons. Indeed, there were real grounds for concern when founding leader of communist China Mao Zedong was at the helm because  he was perceived as dangerously ideological and erratic in his political impulses, at home and abroad. So even though the Communist Party still runs China today, its newer generations of leadership and the nature of its functional ideology and its nuclear intentions today are perceived as much more rational. In addition, China was gradually admitted into the international community—which has a way of gradually dampening excessive radicalism. In this respect, the step towards greater international legitimization of North Korea, for all the country’s ugly domestic facets, will likely serve to slowly impel it towards some greater acknowledgment of “international norms.”

Even the collapse of the Soviet Union brought considerable change to the thinking of both Washington and Moscow. The intentions of communist Russia—its ideology, its closed world view—changed overnight as the bastions of the communist empire fell. A mood of far greater international relaxation emerged as a result.

Sadly, the US then decided to pursue a concerted effort to keep Russia weak and diminished. Remember Obama publicly describing Russia as nothing more than “a regional power?” This demeaning language accompanied U.S. moves to push NATO forces right up to Russia’s very doorstep— in violation of George Bush senior’s understanding with Gorbachev that the US would explicitly not seek to exploit Russia’s new weakness.

The Importance of Civility

In dealing with Pyongyang, the ability of North Korean nukes to reach the U.S. or its allies in East  Asia is naturally a cause for concern and is closely monitored. When each side excoriates the other with extreme rhetoric, fears of inadvertent nuclear incidents or strategic miscalculations rise dramatically. When that rhetoric is calmed and exchanges become more civil, immediate fears recede a bit. The longer civility and dialog can prevail, the greater the relaxation of tensions. The nukes may not go away for quite a while. But the grounds for their use greatly recede.

All weapons are dangerous and nuclear weapons especially so. It would be eminently desirable to see a general global denuclearization, making war a little bit less devastating. Meanwhile there is a nuclear club whose members have fought their way into membership without invitation, and jealously guard the gates lest their own power be correspondingly diluted by still newer members seeking to join the club. One can argue that the more nukes there are, the greater the likelihood of their use. Yet that perspective has yet to be borne out by the facts of international life: so far the US is the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons in conflict—against Japan at the end of World War II. Maybe nukes’ devastating power brings greater sobriety to regional conflicts, as it so far seems to have done, say, between Pakistan and India, both nuclear powers. 

Trump leaving Singapore. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

So there is something to be celebrated in the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim. It has de-demonized both sides in the eyes of the other, and the exchanges have taken on greater mutual respect at the personal level. The strategic aspirations of both sides point to a diminution of confrontation rather than perpetuation of an unstable status quo. At least for now the apparent intentions of Pyongyang have receded to something already less threatening. 

This event contains striking implications for Iran. The U.S. and Iran desperately need to engage in a wide exchange of views designed to de-escalate those intentions and lower the threat threshold. The first step is to sit down in civility with Tehran with a wide-open agenda. John Kerry brought those qualities—reciprocated by Iran— to the Iran nuclear agreement. The agenda, however, was very narrow. Regrettably neo-conservative, liberal interventionists and pro-Zionist forces in the US really don’t want any agreement with Iran to take place short of total regime change in Tehran.

There is no question that Iran needs to de-escalate its rhetoric and move more guardedly in its regional actions—but so too must its neighbors who are  hyping the “Shi’ite threat.” Iran is massively outgunned and beggared by the US and all its regional allies. And the US is still driven by an anti-Iran obsession that is bolstered daily by Israel. 

When the barrel of the pistol is removed from Tehran’s head, it too may start finding a source of emulation in Kim Jong Un’s new diplomatic gambit.

This article originally appeared on Graham Fuller’s blog.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his first novel is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.”  His newest book is BEAR, a novel of the Great Bear Rainforest and Eco-Terrorism. (Amazon, Kindle)


31 comments for “Intentions Matter More Than Weapons

  1. Piotr Berman
    June 16, 2018 at 08:45

    Hard to tell if the glass if half full, but it is definitely fuller than before.

  2. Casey
    June 15, 2018 at 03:51

    To summarize, this particular piece comes off as a Trojan horse that makes some legitimate (if exceedingly mealy-mouthed) critiques of the United States’ policies of hegemonic abandon, but serves to act as an implicit apologia for nuclear proliferation (as long as it is proliferation to the right nation-states, i.e. Pakistan, Israel, etc.), which is a retrospective way for him to justify his own probable actions and those of his co-conspirators to himself:

  3. anastasia
    June 14, 2018 at 14:30

    Iran? Are you kidding? That will never happen for the reasons you give. Israel will not permit it, and Trump owes his election to them. With Kim Jong Un, we had nothing more than some ugly rhetoric. In the mid-east, we have a President who is willing to bomb at the drop of a hat, and evenwilling to scare the people to death with his tweet, “the bombs are coming”, almost a full week before he shot them off. I bet our President slept well that week. Can’t say the same for the Syrian people.

    There was no justifiable reason for the Iranian deal to be breached by Trump. We already performed on that agreement. Iran already got the money. Can’t get that back, and that is all Trump complained about, nothing more, during his campaign. So, why did he breach an agreement where only one side was then obliged to perform – Iran. We had already performed. It was only them to had yet to perform.

    • June 15, 2018 at 14:08

      @ Anastasia:

      I share your pessimism regarding prospects for U.S. peace with Iran in the foreseeable future. But I disagree with your premise that the U.S. had already performed its side of the JCPOA. Yes, Iran’s impounded funds were delivered. But the JCPOA also required the U.S. to remove its economic sanctions and to promote commerce with Iran. And on that score, the U.S. had not yet delivered. Some sanctions had been removed, but many more remained. And rather than promoting commerce with Iran, the U.S. discouraged it.

    • Piotr Berman
      June 16, 2018 at 09:16

      Trump owes his election to collective suicide of his opponents — competing plutocrats who scoured American scene for a collection of candidates that were more mediocre than usual and poured hundreds of millions of them. Republican tycoons lavished huge amounts on the likes of Perry, with poor memorization skills, a sibling of former president that turned out to be more mediocre than his not-so-bright brother, a Senator from Florida who was a plaything of a Floridian businessman but failed the Turing test (distinguishability from a robot), a chap from Wisconsin who could not figure out, when asked, if building a wall on Canadian border would be a good idea etc. Democratic money men decided that since the opposition is so mediocre they can safely put their bet on a candidate less charismatic than a dead fish that was not careful preserved.

      In such circumstances, American elections turned into competition who is better at vilification of the opponents. Naively, I thought that Trump is an easy target. For example, his past boorishness to a Floridian Latino model was nicely played. But there was so much more, and badly needed, as Hillary was vilified in ten ways at least, and for decades. So what angle was selected? Russian connection. Totally boring and unconvincing — Hillary had her own Russian connection, a stretch, if you ask me, but well documented.

  4. vinnieoh
    June 14, 2018 at 10:48

    “When the barrel of the pistol is removed from Tehran’s head, it too may start finding a source of emulation in Kim Jong Un’s new diplomatic gambit.”

    I guess I’m a little confused here. After reading this, admittedly from a blog and maybe not a completely polished bit of argument, I’m wondering just what diplomatic gambit is being referred to here. Apparently, and probably rightly so from NK’s perspective, they have been focused on Washington as the only true avenue of relief from the longstanding specter of invasion and overthrow hanging over their existence. And so, accordingly they have spent decades and untold sums of money to develop an atomic weapon with which to get DC’s attention. They seem to understand quite well at least the presidential politics (election cycles and expected tenure) of the US, and to my recollection each Kim has dutifully tested each successive WH occupant to see if there might be someone there with whom to treat.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kim’s (et al) “gambit” was to produce nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them and so force an audience (finally) with their chief tormentor. Is this what Mr. Fuller is advocating for Iran?

    From my pedestrian and unprofessional pov the JCPOA does exactly what it was intended to do – prevent, for the term of the agreement, the development of a nuclear weapon by Iran. Nothing more and nothing less. Of course it was easy, more or less, for Iran to sign this agreement because, despite all of Netanyahu’s clownish ravings, Iran did not then have a nuke weapons program, and I am mostly convinced they had concluded doing so would be more dangerous, as well as wasteful and pointless.

    As far as the Saudis and all the other Sunni whack jobs, Israel, and the insane Christian Zionists of the US are concerned, nothing will be satisfactory except the spectacle of Iranian leaders lying prostrate before that unholy coalition, begging for mercy and their lives. THIS IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Absolutely Iran is involved in actions all around the ME, as is Israel, KSA, UAE, Turkey, all kicking up a giant obscuring dust storm in their little sandbox. But who materialized the chicken or the egg and which did come first, and who’s tit and who’s tat has put them all at each other’s throats?

    It is nonsensical, or at least unrealistic in the extreme, to expect Iran to retreat in the face of continual aggression, and threats of same, to forego defensive preparations and armaments, to lay itself bare so the Wahhabists and the Zionists can parade in and decapitate them. I understand and appreciate Mr. Fuller’s main thesis that assimilation and engagement is conducive to neighborly tolerance, but we wouldn’t even be having these conversations if the DPRK hadn’t finally succeeded in presenting a nuclear threat. I also understand and agree with his public appeal, from his position of knowledge, competence, and earned respect of those he is addressing on “the left” to accept what just happened as a de-escalation of a(nother) crisis – despite what we all may think of the current dodgy cast of characters.

  5. Don Bacon
    June 14, 2018 at 08:54

    “Intentions Matter More Than Weapons . . .This event contains striking implications for Iran.”

    There are no striking implications for Iran for the reason you state. Intentions rule, and the constant anti-Iran refrain from Washington has been that bad Tehran has “nuclear ambitions.” The real Washington objective is to punish Tehran for ts increased ME hegemony, including its influence on the US defeat in Syria, and to try to weaken Iran Plus maintaining enemies is important to the US security state.

    • anon
      June 14, 2018 at 09:51

      The article notes that “neo-conservative, liberal interventionists and pro-Zionist forces in the US” oppose an Iran agreement, pretending that there is anyone but Jews and their opportunists making these decisions. There is no need for Iran to “de-escalate its rhetoric” as it has done no more than point out US lies and support of terrorism to benefit the thieves in Israel. It is outright bribery of nearly all US politicians that determines US policy, and they are all engaged in treason by economic war upon these United States.

  6. June 14, 2018 at 00:31

    Intentions are a function of the actors. In the case of Trump and Kim the actors are complete sociopaths. One dominates his nation with utter ruthlessness while the other envies that style.

    When you have two actors that are sociopaths (i.e., antisocial personality disorder), intentions don’t matter because they don’t last any longer than the compulsive needs of the actors. You don’t have to wait long for the disaster.

    And, btw, what’s with all the pro-Trump naivety here. In my experience over the years, has always been about speaking truth to power and confronting and calling out tyrants. Trump is a nightmarish wannabe tyrant who shouldn’t have any power at all nor should he be indulged as anything other than he is, a moral leper who tarnishes or destroys everything and everyone he encounters

    • Jean
      June 14, 2018 at 03:13

      You want to see a sociopath?

      Hillary laughing at Gaddaffi death

      Trump might be a greedy narcissistic baboon but he saved us from WW3 that Hillary planned.

      • June 15, 2018 at 01:51

        I find that interview utterly repulsive. I did not support her. But, as we both know, she is not president.

    • Broompilot
      June 14, 2018 at 06:26

      Putin made her do that.

    • mike k
      June 14, 2018 at 07:42

      Labeling someone a sociopath does not mean that their behavior is set in concrete and totally predictable. Even if Trump fits the (somewhat vague) definition of a sociopath, he can still be influenced in various ways. A very large number of the American population qualify as sociopathic to various degrees. You could say the American Culture is sociopathic, and yet we can also show possibilities outside that narrow characterization. Let’s not rule out the possibility of influencing the Donald towards his better behavior; he craves the reward of public praise and support. If he does something good and constructive, like talking to Kim, let’s give him some props for that.

      • June 15, 2018 at 01:56

        You can say all of that but my comment was based on a specific basis – antisocial personality disorder, outlined and studied for years and a personality disorder diagnosis in the diagnostic manual used every day all over the world. the prevalence for this ailment is about 2%. There are a lot of features of sociopathy out there but few meet the full criteria for the condition. They are the worst of the worst. They are driven to do whatever they can get away with to get what they want and they’re not at all capable of honesty, loyalty, and integrity. I hope this outlines my profound distrust of anything that comes from the efforts of the two most intense sociopaths in the public realm.

  7. KiwiAntz
    June 13, 2018 at 21:54

    There’s a saying that states “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”? Translation? This saying is an admonishment that good Intentions, in itself, is meaningless, without following through with positive action? These first steps towards denuclearisation are just that, FIRST STEPS? Nth Korea must play its part, but more importantly, America must adhere & abide by the signed agreements & be legally bound by those conditions? The Iran deal withdrawal doesn’t auger well for the record of the US in honouring it’s commitments & is the biggest stumbling block I see to the resolution of denuclearisation of Korea? America needs enemies, real or imaginary, to justify the trillions of wasted tax dollars to fund its MIC & the Corporate bludgers who feed at this trough? Iran & Nth Korea are no threat to the American empire but Russia & China are, hence the need to contain those small Countries by the US to indirectly get at those two multipolar powers? And the writer is correct, Iran needs to follow Russia, China & Nth Korea’s actions & tone down the aggressive rhetoric?? You have to do the exact opposite of what the US is expecting? Russia has perfected this art under Putin’s leadership by not reacting to US threats, economic sanction warfare & bluster? The result is that the US is made to look isolated, unhinged, crazy & incoherent as opposed to the calm, sane leadership of Russia & China? These to Nations are building Trading bridges built on mutual respect & paving their roads of good intentions through the one belt initiative with meaningful action to back it up? While the Jury’s still out on America? Will it prove to pave its road with the hell of war or the good intentions of peace??

    • michael
      June 14, 2018 at 06:58

      The US reneges regularly on deals and treaties.
      Bill Clinton trashed the Reagan Gorbachev accords, pillaging Russia under puppet Yeltsin and moving NATO forces next to Russia.
      Baby Bush unilaterally backed out of Nixon’s ABM treaty.
      Hillary showed Gaddafi how much his deal to back away from nuclear weapons and be left in peace was worth.
      Trump repudiated Obama’s deal with Iran (much to the glee of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and most US politicians, almost all neolibs and neocons).
      Contracts and NDAs mean nothing in America, as pro athletes and strippers and their lawyers have shown.

  8. elmerfudzie
    June 13, 2018 at 20:36

    In North Korea, there are no advanced military or political architectures in place, (that we know of anyway) to compare with various levels of decision making, consistently found within the governments of other nuclear armed nations. On the domestic front, Un runs the entire show, no bureaucratic, military or wealthy elite can overtly influence or push him around.

    Trump’s statement that the North’s nuclear arsenal is no longer a major concern can only translate into a few re-interpretations. Examples; We (secretly) have the good’s on Un, such as solid documentation that he has been diverting public stores of wealth perhaps gold? into coffers overseas, or, with the aid of London’s CB districts and the NSA monitoring of SWIFT, the US has flagged for seizure, all of his foreign bank accounts or third, we caught him diverting advanced nuclear technology or materials to a well known criminal organization, it’s on tape, and in living color.

    Mr President, keep that fat, illegitimate son of the four dragons, in a painful half nelson until he drops the gun (nuclear program). If there ever was a modern day rogue, Brother Cain, and lover of gustatory over any other pleasure(s), Un is it. You’re half way there Mr President, and if our Intel reveals that Kim Jong-un is just stringing us all along, you know what to do…

    Nothing’s worse than a family that crowns itself King! in particular, over a helpless, ignorant and destitute people. Three self appointed Kim Kings so far and that’s quite enough. Do it !

    • Broompilot
      June 14, 2018 at 06:22

      “Solid documentation” that he has been diverting stores of wealth — perhaps gold?

      Reads like total BS to me with “solid” and “perhaps” in the same sentence. There is a solid reason why the Kim family leads N.Korea that you are obviously unaware of.

      • elmerfudzie
        June 14, 2018 at 18:17

        Broompilot, Your asking me to assume that a fearful and threatened satrap like Un wouldn’t stash his loot with the aid of some equivalent to Mossack Fonseca? History has taught us something here, From Nazi booty to the Panama Papers, outright theft and tax dodging is a common theme among even democratically elected officials let alone un-monitored, aristocrat(s) Their sort of personages are especially suspect, even within politically tranquil countries. To wit, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who’s overseas fortune was in the B for billions of dollars. These autocrats share one thing in common, they murder, imprison, assassinate, repress their peoples until such time that they must, for one one reason or another, run off to “Switzerland” Why assume the best and activly defend these thugs and murders, the self elected, self appointed and most of them are ships without a rudder anyway..

    • mike k
      June 14, 2018 at 07:49

      Well elmerfudzie, if their was ever a case of the pot calling the kettle black, your post is it. All power to the American Empire and it’s great President Donald Trump!?? You make it sound like Kim is the only bad guy in this tango with Trump.

      • elmerfudzie
        June 14, 2018 at 10:22

        Why take a position that strengthens Kim Jong-un? He represents nuclear proliferation, autocratic tyranny and his unannounced missile launches may some day prove to be an actual attack against Tokyo, Guam or an entire fleet of surface ships on patrol. That satrap must be prodded down a very narrow path until he hands over his new pistol. If you haven’t noticed mike k, there are plenty of deputies around the Pacific rim but we’re the only sheriff in town

        • mike k
          June 14, 2018 at 15:08

          @ elmerfudzie – The sheriffs in the East Asian region happen to be China and Russia. This is their backyard, not ours. The USA is and always has been an intruder and invader in this region.

          Any threat that N. Korea represents is trumped a thousand fold by the threat that the USA represents to every nation on Earth. Who is the would be violent Master of the World here? Not little N. Korea.

          • elmerfudzie
            June 14, 2018 at 17:51

            after reading your responses, I assume you know mike k, that everyone is entitled to their
            opinion. You have yours and I have mine

  9. Jeff Harrison
    June 13, 2018 at 20:00

    Thank you, Mr. Fuller. Very well said. Now if you could just work on Mike K’s concerns about American imperial ambitions, we might make the world safe for tomorrow.

    • mike k
      June 14, 2018 at 15:14

      Jeff, I wish people would listen and just do what I say. I have a plan to create a peaceful world for everyone, but the big shots that run the show are just not listening to me (if they did it would just be to silence me). I just don’t get no respect….sigh…..

  10. mike k
    June 13, 2018 at 19:33

    Another article implying if we would just solve x or y problem all would be well. These happy thoughts unfortunately have to deal with the relentless drive of the US Empire to rule the Earth, or die trying. Unless this little problem is dealt with, and soon, all other regional fixes are irrelevant and totally inadequate.

    • mike k
      June 13, 2018 at 19:36

      I should have said…..or all of us die.

  11. Tom W
    June 13, 2018 at 19:23

    Let’s not fully celebrate yet. We have a long ways to go before we see peace in Korea. Kim still has his full load of nukes and the canons are pointed towards Seoul. We have 28,000 boots on the ground in Korea. Trump cancelled the military exercises. While I would love to bring these troops home, that fact is they are there as a deterrent. They need to train just in case Kim or Trump decides to blow up the agreement like Trump did with Iran. We are not out of the water yet. So lets be a bit more skeptical and not give up everything. Reagan said TRUST BUT VERIFY. Kim is a murderer and violent dictator who still wants to be in power. Trump is unstable in many ways. Although intentions are important in the long run, its the weapons that truly matter. There is time enough to celebrate but not now.

    • mike k
      June 14, 2018 at 07:52

      Maybe we could have just a teensy weensy celebration? Pleeeeeze, we need something to celebrate in this modern wasteland so badly…….

    • JoeD
      June 14, 2018 at 11:27

      Military exercises are theater not training. De-escalating tensions is a positive thing. If you want to talk about violent regimes, let’s talk about Saudi Arabia and the genocide taking place in Yemen with American weapons.

      The US has given up nothing. It is the time to for cautious optimism because this is a positive first step.

  12. Michael Eremia
    June 13, 2018 at 18:59

    One of the best articles published and presented on the Internet. Graham Fuller is a candidate for Secretary-of-State, serving the USA with distinction – regardless of his political affiliation.

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