Analysis & Opinions

Trump’s Disdain For Expertise Has US Weak Going Into North Korea Summit

| June 11, 2018

By Caroline Orr

Trump’s disdain for science, diplomacy, and expertise in general has left the U.S. at a major strategic disadvantage heading into this week’s nuclear talks with North Korea.

We all know Trump is unprepared for the talks — he even bragged about it last week — but less well known is the fact that he doesn’t have a team of experts working behind the scenes to make sure things don’t go off course.

As the New York Times recently highlighted, Trump will take on the task of negotiating denuclearization with North Korea “without the help of a White House science adviser or senior counselor trained in nuclear physics.”

The position of White House science adviser was created during World War II to inform policy on everything from nuclear warfare, to infectious disease outbreaks, according to the Times. Trump is the first president since 1941 not to fill the position, the Times also noted.

Since Trump hasn’t nominated anyone for the position, the post fell into the lap of a 31-year-old politics major who has never studied science and whose most recent job was as chief of staff for Trump ally and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the post-World War II period where issues as important as nuclear weapons are on the table, and there is no serious scientist there to help the president through the thicket,” Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, told the Times. “This reverberates throughout policy.”

But the lack of expertise in the Trump White House is only half of the problem.

Not only will Trump head into talks with North Korea without seasoned officials to help him — he’ll also be facing off against a world leader who has a team of people tasked with making sure North Korean interests are front and center, putting the U.S. at a serious tactical disadvantage.

“You need to have an empowered senior science adviser at the table,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations on nuclear issues during the George W. Bush administration. “You can be sure the other side will have that.”

The problem also extends beyond the White House.

Trump has effectively gutted the State Department, leaving vacancies in critical diplomatic positions dealing with everything from nuclear nonproliferation and arms control to North Korea policy.

The top U.S. diplomat in charge of North Korea policy resigned in February and has not been replaced. Last month, the State Department’s top nuclear expert resigned after Trump killed the Iran nuclear deal, leaving another critical position vacant.

Trump’s pick for ambassador to South Korea withdrew his name from consideration in January because of disagreements with the administration’s policies. So that position, too, remains vacant.

Other key State Department posts left vacant include the special adviser on nonproliferation and arms control, the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, the special representative on nuclear nonproliferation, and the coordinators of U.S. sanctions policy and threat reduction programs.

These positions are not just formalities — they exist for a reason, and leaving them vacant means the U.S. is in a weaker position on the global stage.

“There is going to be the requirement for trade-offs” during discussions with North Korea, said Ernest J. Moniz, a nuclear physicist who led the Energy Department and oversaw the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal during the Obama administration.

“[T]hat judgment is best made by people with technical expertise who are also very senior politically,” Moniz said. “That just does not exist in this administration.”

Trump can say all he wants about putting America first, but his actions tell the real story. He’s not putting America first. He’s not even giving American interests a seat at the table.

But while Trump is going into the talks woefully unprepared, there’s one person who isn’t: Kim Jong Un. And you can be sure he’s well prepared for Trump’s unpreparedness — and well positioned to take advantage of America’s disadvantaged position at the bargaining table.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Trump’s Disdain For Expertise Has US Weak Going Into North Korea Summit.” , June 11, 2018.