There's the famous story of Clare Booth Luce visiting Jack Kennedy in 1962 and telling him that "a great man is one sentence." Lincoln "preserved the Union and freed the slaves. FDR "lifted us out of a depression and helped us win a world war." That is all most people would remember of them, and to some extent all that people would need to remember.
Which brings us to Donald Trump, our frequently offensive, quite possibly bigoted, scattershot, ill-tempered, and characterologically deficient president. Will his sentence be that he brought peace to Korea, forestalled a nuclear conflict, and won a Nobel Peace Prize in the process?
"No-bel, No-bel!" went the chant at the president's rally Saturday night in Washington, Michigan. "President Trump, if he can lead us to ending the Korean War after 70 years and getting North Korea to give up their nuclear program in a verifiable way, deserves the Nobel Peace Prize and then some," Lindsey Graham told Fox News on Sunday.
It's unclear how much stock should be put into the Nobel Peace Prize, an award that exists largely to sanctify the political opinions of Scandinavian elites. And why are Trump's fans apparently so keen on him winning a Nobel? It's not because they're up reading the latest Council of Foreign Relations reports. It's because the last American president they didn't like won one in his first year on the job,.
Still, it's hard to argue with Graham's essential logic. Should Trump find a way to bring the last remaining Cold War conflict to an end in a way that avoids bloodshed and opens the door to a free, unified, and democratic Korea, then sure, yeah, give him that Nobel.
Without full knowledge of how our government's negotiations with North Korea are progressing, it's hard to say how realistic all of that is. John Bolton, for one, sounded skeptical about the North's intentions. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Kim Jong Un is telling his South Korean counterpart that he's willing to abandon his nuclear weapons so long as the U.S. promises not to invade.
Experts like Nicholas Eberstadt, a founding director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, have made the case for pessimism regarding the negotiations. "The United States' diplomatic goal – the denuclearization of North Korea in the near future – is far beyond what is realistically achievable," warns James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In a worst-case scenario, writes Acton, a failed negotiation could even act as "prelude to war" as tensions would invariably escalate in the aftermath.
So perhaps it is safe to say that all of this Nobel talk is, at best, premature. If all it takes for Kim to give up his nukes is a promise not to invade, then we should by all means take it. An arguably similar deal, which was coupled with a U.S. promise to remove some medium-range missiles from Europe and Turkey, allowed the Kennedy administration to avert a war while still getting Soviet nukes out of Cuba. In other words, there's a precedent for this kind of thing.
Interestingly, though, that doesn't seem to be the precedent Bolton has in mind. He's instead been talking about Libya, which surrendered its nuclear weapons program after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Bolton likes that arrangement because it provided some retroactive justification for the Iraq War, and was also overseen by American and allied inspectors, not some meddlesome international body.
Kim, however, certainly sees the Libyan deal as a cautionary tale. Muammar Gaddafi gave away his most fearsome weapons, but when his country was hit by the Arab Spring, the U.S. wasted little time in helping overthrow him. If Kim were to give up the nuclear weapons and rockets he's invested so heavily in, why would he think that the next American administration, or the one after, would hesitate to knock him off if given the chance?
Perhaps he's confident that his conventional weapons, namely all that artillery the North has pointed a Seoul, provides enough of a deterrent. Maybe he has concluded that sanctions relief and a non-aggression pact with Donald Trump is the best way to secure the continued existence of the North's hereditary monarchy, which still honors Kim's father and long-dead grandfather as its "eternal presidents." Or maybe he thinks he can just manipulate Trump and the South into a deal that would once again make Pyongyang the preeminent power on the peninsula.
The more you think about it, the harder it becomes to see an unambiguously positive outcome from all this. But, really, what's the alternative to negotiations? It's not like George W. Bush, who stuck to a hawkish and overbearing line when dealing with the North, and Barack Obama, who abided by thepulled off any miracles in Korea.
So maybe Trump's plan somehow works out. It's still almost impossible to see Nordic progressives actually giving Trump a Nobel, what with his rhetoric and domestic policies. But then again, nobody has ever argued that saintliness is a precondition of the Nobel Prize.
Woodrow Wilson won the prize despite his bone-deep racism and furtherance of segregation here at home. Yasser Arafat got one, too. We live in a world where even great awards honor the grossly imperfect; when liberals objected to including Spiro Agnew's bust alongside those of the other vice presidents in the Capitol, his supporters correctly noted that Aaron Burr's was already there.
We don't know yet whether Trump's summit with Kim will yield anything of value. But in a situation with vanishingly few options, let's just agree to hope that he somehow earns that Nobel.