The Summit Plummet

Always be ready to walk away from the table if you don’t like the deal, US President Donald Trump once wrote. Well, forget about the table — on Thursday morning Trump pulled the plug a full three weeks before even getting into the room with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.


What happened? President Trump’s framed his decision to cancel the planned 12 June summit as a matter of words — he didn’t like it that North Korean officials said some not very #BeBest things about Vice President Pence! — but in reality the collapse had to do with a critical underlying disagreement over definitions.

The prospect of “denuclearization,” which was central to any talks, always meant very different things to Pyongyang (give up weapons slowly, get lots of good stuff along the way) and Washington (give up weapons swiftly, we’ll talk about your benefits afterwards, but maybe you won’t be around long enough to see them.)

That ongoing disagreement — just weeks from the summit — burst into the open in the recent verbal sparring between Pyongyang and Pence (and National Security Adviser John Bolton) which Trump used as the pretext to scuttle the summit.

So what’s next for our two jilted leaders?

The ball is in Pyongyang’s court now, but Kim Jong-un hardly needs to hurry after it. A summit on equal footing with the US president would have been a diplomatic coup for him, sure, but even without that, the threat of US military action against him is already lower, and his relations with South Korea and China much warmer, than they were just weeks ago. Those things are already wins for Kim. So he can afford to play it cool for at bit — but is that really his style?

For Trump, although the foreign policy mandarins see this as a big humiliation, his base will see it as a strong move from a tough negotiator, so there’s little political fallout there. A bigger question is how this plays into his calculus on China. For months, Trump has pulled his punches with Beijing on trade issues, in part because he needed President Xi Jinping’s help to pressure his client Kim Jong-un to the table. But if Trump sees the summit as a lost cause, he could quickly pivot to a more confrontational stance towards China.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.