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Give North Korea All the Prestige It Wants

Donald Trump can afford the humiliation of negotiating with Kim Jong Un.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un  attending an art performance dedicated to nuclear scientists and technicians. (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un attending an art performance dedicated to nuclear scientists and technicians. (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In Dorothy L. Sayers’s short story “Talboys,” the noble sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey at one point gives his young son Bredon an important lesson about adult behavior. “I’ll tell you a secret, Bredon,” he says. “Grown-up people don’t always know everything, though they try to pretend they do. That is called ‘prestige,’ and is responsible for most of the wars that devastate the continent of Europe.”

I thought of that passage when I heard about U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to accept North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s invitation to a summit meeting. Like the “grown-up people” in Sayers’s story, Trump and Kim are both leaders who try to pretend they know everything. Moreover, the petty war of insults between “Little Rocket Man” and the “dotard” might have led to a war that devastated not the continent of Europe but the Korean Peninsula. In addition to the tangible conflicts of interest dividing the two states, issues of status, prestige, and ego are clearly involved as well.

For the United States, the central issue is North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability and its missile development program, which if continued will eventually enable it to hit the continental United States (though why it would choose to do so remains a mystery, given the consequences of U.S. retaliation). And for all his earlier bluster and saber-rattling, Trump seems to have realized — for now — that the existing military options are unattractive and that diplomacy is the only realistic path.

For North Korea, however, a key element in the dispute is its desire for recognition and prestige. In addition to wanting a reliable deterrent against a U.S. attack, North Korea would like the mighty United States to treat it not as a pariah but as something of an equal. Having diplomatic relations with Canada or Laos is one thing for Pyongyang; getting some respect from Washington is something else entirely.

This is why some of Trump’s critics are already accusing him of once again practicing the “art of the giveaway.” By accepting Kim’s invitation without any prior discussion and without any clear commitments on North Korea’s part, Trump has already given Kim what North Korea’s leaders have long wanted: the chance to meet and bargain face-to-face with the president of the world’s most powerful country. Suddenly, “Little Rocket Man” is enjoying the prospect of a summit meeting with Trump that will command the attention of the entire world, ahead of dozens of world leaders whom Trump has yet to meet with, visit, or pay the slightest attention to. And what did Trump get for this remarkable concession, a gift that none of his predecessors ever made? Nada. At the end of Round 1, the score is: Kim 1, Trump 0.

Why does Kim care whether he gets respect from Washington or not? After all, the United States hasn’t recognized North Korea officially for the entire 70 years of its existence. Actually, there’s your answer: As soon as the two leaders sit down to talk, Kim can plausibly claim to have pulled off something that neither his father nor his grandfather ever managed. Even if the talks themselves lead nowhere, Kim will have gotten an American president to treat him as an equal. To be sure, the United States has engaged with North Korea on numerous occasions in the past — including at the world’s longest-running (and slowest moving) peace talks at Panmunjom — but no U.S. president has ever met with his North Korean counterpart, precisely because no U.S. president wanted to grant status and prestige to any of the Kims without getting significant, tangible concessions in return.

In common parlance, “prestige” is recognition by others that someone or something is exceptional in some way, that it has positive qualities that distinguish it from the norm. Thus, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz are more “prestigious” car brands than Chevy or Hyundai, and victory at Wimbledon confers more prestige than winning a regular ATP tour event.

Like legitimacy or status, prestige is not a quality that an actor can confer on itself; it is something one earns or obtains from others. No matter how rich you are, you can’t give yourself prestige or status unless you can convince others that you deserve it. Someone of more modest means might enjoy greater prestige, for example, if others saw them as more virtuous, likeable, smart, well-behaved, or deserving. Case in point: Some have argued that Donald Trump’s compulsive tendency to inflate his own achievements derives from his repeated efforts to impress New York City’s social and business elite, which saw him as a boorish parvenu from Queens who had inherited a lot of money but not a lot of class. But I digress…

In international politics, a nation’s “prestige” is obviously tied to its past achievements, but it can also produce power in the present, which is why states are eager to acquire it. Signs of respect and acceptance from the rest of the international community make a country’s leaders look good and are likely to bolster their domestic support. Furthermore, states that enjoy a high level of prestige (for whatever reason) can expect greater deference from others, simply because they are believed to be skillful, competent, and capable. During the Cold War, for example, the Warsaw Pact poured immense effort into winning Olympic medals (often by cheating) because it believed such triumphs would showcase the superiority of communism and bring other states to follow Moscow’s lead on other matters. America’s moon landing was a similar achievement that underscored its technological sophistication, daring, and ability to set a goal and pull it off.

Via a similar logic, America’s Cold War victory and its impressive economic performance during most of the 1990s convinced many observers that Americans had found the magic formula for success and contributed to its “soft power.” Sadly, that perception that was subsequently squandered by the debacle in Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis, and evaporating before our eyes today. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that states value their reputations and believe being admired, respected, and maybe even envied by others can be a subtle but important source of influence.

This helps explain why states with power and prestige would seek to withhold it from others. Sometimes they do so to penalize those who are violating established international norms. For example, hardly anyone has recognized the pro-Russian satellite regimes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, or Trans-Dniester, because these semi-states did not emerge from a legitimate international process and appear to violate a number of existing norms.

Similarly, no state ever recognized the so-called “caliphate” that the Islamic State militant group proclaimed in 2014; instead, they treated the “Islamic State” not as a new member of the international community but as a dangerous gang of brutal criminals. Nonrecognition can also be a source of leverage; by making recognition conditional on a foreign government’s behavior, outside powers can try to persuade it to accept and conform to existing international norms.

If pushed too far or overused, however, refusing to recognize an opponent’s existence or legitimacy ceases to be a useful tactic and becomes a self-defeating bad habit instead. One can understand why most Arab governments refused to recognize the new state of Israel back in 1948, for example, but sticking to this position 70 years later looks rather silly and counterproductive today, and all the more so when cooperation between Israel and governments such as Saudi Arabia is an open secret. Similarly, did America’s refusal to recognize Communist China or Fidel Castro’s Cuba for decades really advance U.S. interests? The answer is no: This policy made the United States look clueless and reduced Washington’s ability to influence either regime. Today, the United States’ aversion to establishing diplomatic relations with Iran looks more like a self-defeating act of spite than an example of wise statecraft. Why? Because the lack of regular, routinized contact between the two governments limits U.S. understanding of Iran’s leadership, gives Washington few avenues for shaping Iranian perceptions and attitudes, and allows America’s rivals to build relationships there in its absence.

These examples of protracted estrangement underscore an important paradox. The longer that a country refuses to talk with or recognize another, the harder it is to break the silence and the greater the symbolic leap when the conversation finally begins. Like a family quarrel, the longer two parties refuse to speak with one another, the more importance will be attached to the moment when one party finally picks up the phone and tries to repair the rift. Having treated North Korea as a pariah since the early 1950s — for understandable reasons — the slightest move toward normalcy today takes on grave significance for the United States, for them, and for others.

And that is the real danger lurking behind a Trump-Kim summit (assuming, of course, it ever takes place). Having already given Kim a significant propaganda coup — no matter how much Trump’s staff tries to deny it — the president will be under enormous pressure to come away with an agreement that makes the gamble seem worth it. The moment Trump walks into a room with Kim — an event that’s likely to attract as much press attention as the Super Bowl — he will be giving the North Korean leader a degree of status and prestige that the regime has long craved and never before received. If Trump gets little or nothing in return — for example, if he gets a nuclear “deal” that is self-evidently worse than the Iran deal he has consistently derided — everyone from Seoul to Seattle will know he got played.

In this scenario, Trump’s personal prestige — and especially his puffed-up claims to be a master dealmaker rather than an expert in bankruptcy and con artistry — will have been exposed as hollow. What would he do then? No one knows. But as Lord Peter told his son, concerns for “prestige” have been responsible for a lot of wars in the past.

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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