Expected Value: why the Singapore Summit was a good thing

This has been a whirlwind week for followers of US and world politics. Out of all these stories, the biggest was probably the Singapore summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump (although the Czech President did call an impromptu press conference to burn a giant pair of underwear). The summit has highlighted the hypocrisy of American politicos (shocking!). Many on the right are praising it, after spending eight years complaining about Obama even mentioning the idea of meeting with dictators like Un. On the left, meanwhile, a lot of democrats who wanted increased negotiations and de-escalation during last year’s crisis are criticizing that exact process. In the interests of moral consistency, and being right, I believe the expected value of the summit is positive.  In the words of Jaimie Peck of the Majority Report: “If nothing comes out of this meeting other than two unstable men feel better about themselves I’m ok with that.”

To justify my opinion I return to one of my favorite mental tools: expected value. For readability and analysis, I break this into a series of sections; the event I am analyzing the expected value of, the major possible outcomes of the event, the major possible outcomes of not having the event, the probability of all these outcomes, and a final comparison.

The Question

The question is: from the perspective of someone not privy to either party’s strategies (or lack thereof), should I support or oppose the Singapore summit?  For simplicity’s sake, supporting has the consequence of continuing whatever trend is coming out of the summit, and opposing has the consequence of returning US and North Korean diplomatic relations to something like a year or two ago, e.g. Detroit Pistons Forward Dennis Rodman.

Possible outcomes of the summit

1. Trump and Un get along a bit better personally, maybe feel better about themselves, nothing else changes.

2. Trump and Un end up not liking each other, nothing else changes.

3. This is part of a John Bolton strategy of demonstrating that talks can’t work by demanding everything in exchange for nothing, and using their breakdown as a breakdown for war—his talk of the “Libya Model” in which Gadhafi gave up his weapons program and ended up dead less than a decade later doesn’t help.

4. Some level of de-escalation happens on the Korean Peninsula.

5. Increased diplomatic relations between the two countries.

6. A wedge is driven between the US and South Korea; the US backs out of its defensive commitment.

7. This teaches Kim Jong Un that building more and larger weapons and missiles—and being provocative with their development—is a winning strategy.

Possible outcomes of “returning the course”

8. North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and ICBMs.

9. De-escalation on the Korean Peninsula without major US policy shifts or the US engaging in talks with North Korea.

10. Tensions escalate on the Korean Peninsula to the point of hot war—due to intentional act or misinterpretation /miscommunication in the midst of multi-national games of brinkmanship.

11. Tensions remain at the level they’ve been more or less since the end of the Korean War, North Korea remains a nuclear power and horrible regime, the DMZ remains in place, and nothing significant actually happens.

Predicting probabilities

For length, I am going to assign probabilities straight to the numbers, with occasional brief explanations, but I won’t go too in depth (unless someone asks for it). I will admit to potentially overvaluing all war scenarios, those are really hard to guess.

Summit Consequences

1 (Happy leaders, nothing happens) 20% I can never tell if Trump will make or keep a friend.

20% I really, really, can’t.

2 (Unhappy leaders, nothing happens)
3 (Bolton strategy; war) 30% This includes a strong push from the White House to go to war that nonetheless fails.
4 (De-escalation) 30% I see this as likely to come in the form of decrease in both US/SK war games and NK testing.
5 (Diplomacy) 40% This is not exclusive to scenarios 4, 6, and 7.
6 (SK/US wedge) 10% The South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has been pushing for talks and will remain president through Trump’s entire first term void resignation.
7 (Teaches Un to be belligerent) 70% It gave him something is father and grandfather couldn’t get: a meeting with the POTUS. Missing 30% is the chance of hot war.


No Summit Consequences

8 (NK continues weapon development) 97% That missing 3% is mainly if they are happy with the state of their weapons; unlikely. This is non-exclusive with all but scenario 9.
9 (De-escalation) 1% It’s been nearly 70 years…
10 (War) 35% This includes a strong push for hot war from a major party in the US that ultimately collapses.
11 (Nothing happens) 64% I feel like I am undervaluing this outcome.

Ye ol’ comparison

Scenarios 1 and 2 are more or less the same as there being no summit, which probably means continued weapons development and not much else. In a non-summit scenario there is a slightly increased chance of war—pretty much the chance Bolton is the Trump Whisperer and gets his Bloody Nose strike is the same in both worlds but there is a larger chance of miscalculation leading to war without diplomacy. Meanwhile, diplomacy in and of itself is good because it decreases miscalculation chances and paves the road for actual changes in strategy (something foreign to the US National Security Establishment’s consensus on North Korea it seems). The chance this backfires and dangerously weakens the relation between the US and its regional allies strikes me as pretty low, and teaching Un to be belligerent (if he didn’t already learn that from his father) seems inevitable but I think it’s outweighed by the value of diplomacy.

Overall, there is a marginal decrease in the probability of war and increased chance of non-basketball based diplomatic relations with the summit.

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