In the hours after the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, experts and pundits on social media have mostly opined that the US 'got nothing' out of the meeting.
An obvious case can be made for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his patron China as the chief winners. The concessions on US side were easy to see:
- The US 'normalised' and 'legitimised' Kim by presenting him as an equal to President Donald Trump on the world stage. The twined flag arrangement, the handshake choreography in the meet and greet were no different to how a US president would treat a typical visiting foreign leader at the White House. The pair held talks with aides, a working lunch and signed a declaration at the end. Yet Kim is the dictator of a tightly-controlled, and until recently isolated, rogue nation - now with nukes.
- The US dialled back on its demand for a show of faith from North Korea on its nuclear programme, with no timetable now given for disarmament and just a vague goal of denuclerisation. To North Korea that term includes the US lifting its security blanket from the peninsula.
- And Trump spoke afterwards about wanting to remove all US troops from South Korea. He also agreed to halt US-South Korea military drills, following the Chinese plan of a 'freeze for a freeze' after North Korea halted its nuclear and missile testing.
- After just a day of meetings, Trump spoke of his "trust" in Kim and "very special bond" with the North Korean leader.
Political analyst Josh Rogin tweeted: "The more Trump talks about the deal, the worse it sounds. US stops exercises, pledges to remove troops, no new sanctions, all in exchange for vague promises of denuclearisation."
Colin Kahl, former national security advisor to Joe Biden, tweeted: "Critics of the Iran deal blasted Obama for giving up maximum leverage for a less-than-perfect agreement, even though the 156-page deal provided long-term, verifiable nuclear constraints. Trump has now given up maximum pressure on North Korea for 1 page of empty promises."
The Atlantic Council's Daniel Fried wrote: "China and Kim are winners. We are now operating within their policy framework: de facto nuclear status quo (which favours North Korea), suspension of US military exercises (ditto) , and de facto gradual weakening of sanctions, the leverage which the US administration deployed, developed, and now risks squandering."
What this means for the US, North Korea and countries in the region is uncertain for now.
There will be pushback from South Korea, the Pentagon and within the Republican Party over the pledges to stop military exercises and pullout troops. It is hard to see any troop withdrawal happening in this Trump term with the upcoming US election timetable of the Midterms in November and presidential campaigning next year.
The unusual move to hold a summit with a despot, freshly part of the nuclear club, has instantly created precedents. Trump has even promised to invite Kim to the White House. But despite the disgust at 'normalisation,' regular talks and ties with North Korea appear to be a healthier and safer option than keeping the country at arms' length. It's a process that has to happen if the country is to evolve towards 'normality'.
The question of what Trump's foreign policy is doing to the old system of diplomatic alliances in North America, Europe and Asia has been in sharp focus since the G7. As a businessman he seems to see little difference between old friends and foes, calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "dishonest and weak" just days before Kim was apparently "very talented".
There's no consistency of position, just a whiplash of shifting stances. Fried writes: "Tactical unpredictability can be a tool. Strategic unreliability is a liability." Rivals Russia and China gain more from Trump than the EU countries and Japan. The past counts for nothing.
Fried adds: "The administration can make up some of the losses by negotiating a serious framework for "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" North Korean disarmament, maintaining the sanctions in place and enforced until that deal is done and implemented, and postponing until after peace on the peninsula is secured any substantial change to the robust US-South Korea security relationship."
For now, the US has diplomatic headaches with regional allies emerging from the summit.
And for Trump himself? Trump said he told Kim: "You can have the best hotels in the world. Think of it from a real estate perspective." A future Trump Tower Pyongyang?
Once again he showed with his showmanship how difficult an opponent he will be in the next presidential election, with his added advantages of incumbency and a well-performing economy. He is an effective, easy-to-digest messenger who can charm when he wants to.
He is trying to sell Kim and North Korea to his domestic audience. A CNN poll last month showed 77 per cent approval for the Trump-Kim meeting. It gives him a chance to reach beyond core supporters. People want a 'normal,' unthreatening North Korea.
For people who don't chase the nuance in such events and absorb them via video, photos and soundbites, the summit may have looked like a bold move that paid off for Trump.
It may have looked like a win, a foreign policy achievement for the dealmaker, something that no president had done before - as Trump made sure to emphasise.