Japan and France to the rescue

Japan and France to the rescue
© Getty Images

For any aspiring Paul Revere sounding the alarm on nuclear nonproliferation, after more than a year of setbacks, the most promising news this month is four words: “The allies are coming.”

The visits of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron to the United States will shape developments in May on the two biggest nuclear issues on the world stage: North Korea and Iran. Their outcomes could influence whether President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE takes the nation to war on either the Korean Peninsula, in the Middle East, or both.

Abe and Macron make their visits with unprecedented leverage. They start out knowing President Trump better than he knows his own new national security adviser. Both leaders can talk to Trump about the high stakes of policies towards North Korea and Iran, and convince him the United States is best off tethered to its allies.

They can emphasize the connectedness between the Iran nuclear agreement that Trump despises and the bargain he hopes to strike in North Korea. If the president eviscerates the deal with Tehran while Iran is in compliance, Trump will be sending the message to Pyongyang that the word of the United States is not to be trusted.

Trump surprised everyone when he accepted an invitation to talk with the North Korean leader. But with no U.S. secretary of State currently in place and a volatile national security adviser only just installed, it’s difficult to believe the president will be adequately prepared, much less equipped with an actual strategy. Abe and Macron can offer one.

Reprising last year’s visit, Abe meets with Trump at Mar A Largo, but much has changed since then. Abe is likely worried the president may accept an agreement with Kim Jong Un that dismantles any long-range missile capacity but allows North Korea to remain a nuclear state. Japan would be left with Kim’s nuclear arsenal intact, and North Korea’s short-range missile capability right next door. Abe can appeal to Trump’s bravado and insist that any agreement hinge on North Korea’s compliance with the additional protocol by the International Atomic Energy Agency, invented in response to previous North Korean cheating during the Clinton years.

Abe understands that flattery, as opposed to strategic thinking, is the most effective means for persuading the president to work in the interest of the alliance. In advance of his meeting with Trump in 2017, Abe prepared by taking golf lessons, and last summer sought to ingratiate himself with the president by inviting Ivanka TrumpIvanka TrumpMichael Cohen predicts Trump will turn on family after revelation of criminal probe Eric Trump buys .2M home near father's golf club in Florida Melinda Gates tapped divorce lawyers in 2019 after Epstein links to husband: report MORE to visit Japan and talk about women’s empowerment as part of his “womenomics” campaign. But flattering Trump has its limits, as the president refused to provide an exemption for Japan on the recent steel and automobile tariffs.

Because Trump values dealmaking over any bilateral relationship, Abe’s challenge will be to present Trump with a “deal” over North Korea that the American president can claim as a “win.” He can borrow a page from South Korean President Moon Jae In’s script. It wasn’t a coincidence that the South Korea’s national security adviser announced the North Korea meeting, and suggested that it was entirely because of Trump’s masterful mix of diplomacy and sanctions, when of course, it was the South Koreans themselves who negotiated the face-to-face diplomacy.

The visit of Macron to the White House on April 24 may be even more important. Macron is Trump’s favorite European leader after the commander-in-chief was fêted as a guest of honor at the 2017 Bastille Day parade. Macron’s charm offensive has had mixed results. He failed to keep Trump in the Paris climate agreement, but did persuade the president not to abandon American counterterrorism presence in Syria.

As did Trump, Macron inherited the Iran nuclear agreement, but unlike Trump, he supports the agreement. As a former business leader and political outsider, Macron can find common ground with Trump on gaining “leverage” in any deal. He can humor Trump by suggesting that progress has been made in Europe confronting Iran’s non-nuclear misdeeds because of Trump’s vocal stance, but that we risk that momentum if we gut the Iran nuclear agreement.

Macron has another card to play. He can argue that Trump can be the American president who helps engineer a transition in Iran away from theocracy, but that it won’t happen if the United States abandons the nuclear deal and gives Iranian hardliners the scapegoat the agreement finally denied them for the first time since 1979. Indeed, the protests and politics roiling Tehran would not have been possible if the supreme leader was still able to blame the West for Iran’s internal problems.

So we have two state visits and two nuclear crises. The diplomacy this month is made for reality television viewing of the highest stakes, but the stakes are real and not produced for ratings. We can only hope that our allies can reason with the celebrity apprentice in the White House.

David Wade was a chief of staff of the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration. He is now a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and chief executive officer of Greenlight Strategies.

David McKean served as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg and director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration. He is now a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund.