Argument

Trump’s Kaiser Wilhelm Approach to Diplomacy

For the U.S. president, like the last German monarch, foreign policy is all about personal ego, not national interests.

Donald Trump arrives for the morning working session on the second day of the G20 economic summit on July 8, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Donald Trump arrives for the morning working session on the second day of the G20 economic summit on July 8, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The promised summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might still happen, but Trump’s letter to Kim canceling the meeting still qualifies as shocking. It deserves a closer reading than it has received. It is nearly unprecedented for a Western leader to harbor such a simultaneously naive and pathological belief that diplomacy could work this way — and the most apt historical precedent is not at all reassuring.

The mix of personal pique, faux gratitude, exaggerated generosity, and blustering threats is more reminiscent of an adolescent tantrum than an act of statesmanship. The president expresses frustration with the trash talk and obstinacy from North Korea — which are nothing new — and he angrily announces that he will now leave the court and take his ball home. The North Koreans should presumably beg him to stay and change their ways to suit his demands.

Trump’s letter will likely be remembered as among the most internationally-alienating presidential acts in the last century. Even when the United States pursued isolationist and unilateralist policies, foreign leaders could expect that the president would act to defend U.S. national interests. That foundational realpolitik made American foreign policy predictable, rational, and credible. There was a clear logic and a legible purpose behind Washington’s actions. And foreign actors could respect that, even if they disagreed. They could work with us, even if it meant managing interests in conflict.

Trump’s diatribe never mentions the word “interests.” The president’s letter is oddly personal and emotional, focused on his alleged unrequited benevolence and Kim’s apparent disrespect for Trump’s grandeur and generosity. His entire explanation for why he will not show up in Singapore is about him and Kim. Nothing else seems to matter, even when he ominously comments: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” How dare the North Korean leader insult the U.S. president who has, of course, insulted Kim repeatedly! How dare Pyongyang fail to display deference to the great U.S. leader! How could Kim not give in when the United States offers so much by condescending to meet him? The president writes as if his North Korean counterpart is a tributary, not a peer leader of a sovereign state.

Trump promises to wait, without compromise, for Kim to come to his senses and show contrite humility: “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.” Really? Can he send you a tweet, Mr. President?

This silliness has grave significance. Trump’s narcissistic aggression and his early morning tantrums are well known. Many foreign leaders have adjusted, but the callous disregard for all diplomatic norms in the North Korean letter crosses another line.

If the rest of the world comes to believe that Trump really only cares about his own ego and pocketbook — and that he will threaten nuclear war to protect his image — then the space for any workable relationships disintegrates. Without the recognized ballast of national interests to discipline policymaking, a powerful country becomes an erratic menace. How can anyone — ally or adversary — invest in an agreement with Washington when the country’s policies are driven by arbitrary presidential whims? That kind of unpredictability can only inspire preparation for the worst — outcomes that then become self-fulfilling.

And we have experienced this nightmare before, more than a century ago. The tone and language of Trump’s letter to Kim has few recent analogues, but it eerily echoes the self-important destructiveness of German Kaiser Wilhelm II. This is a historical analogy, with obvious policy implications, that all major international actors must now consider.

In October 1908, the Daily Telegraph newspaper in England published the text of an interview with the kaiser that sounded, well, Trumpian:

“You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares. What has come over you that you are so completely given over to suspicions quite unworthy of a great nation? … Falsehood and prevarication are alien to my nature. My actions ought to speak for themselves, but you listen not to them but to those who misinterpret and distort them. That is a personal insult which I feel and resent. To be forever misjudged, to have my repeated offers of friendship weighed and scrutinized with jealous, mistrustful eyes, taxes my patience severely. I have said time after time that I am a friend of England, and your press — or, at least, a considerable section of it — bids the people of England refuse my proffered hand and insinuates that the other holds a dagger. How can I convince a nation against its will?”

In this interview, the kaiser not only justified German support to British adversaries in South Africa and Berlin’s naval buildup, but he also claimed that British reactions were insults to him, and he demanded personal vindication. He lashed out at his critics in England and Germany as “mad” and proclaimed his personal infallibility.

This was too much, even for a king. The uproar triggered by the Kaiser’s interview (known as “the Daily Telegraph Affair”) convinced British observers that they could never negotiate a peace with the unhinged German monarch. Many other European leaders came to the same conclusion, including prominent members of the German civilian government. Leaders in London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and even Berlin spent much of the next decade seeking to ignore, contain, and divert the kaiser’s repeated outbursts of narcissistic belligerence. His presence did not make World War I inevitable, but the terrible cataclysm would have been much more avoidable if he had been more of a statesman, or at least a diplomat. Instead, his presence repeatedly drove difficult circumstances to conflict.

Trump’s tone and language are Wilhelmine. The aggressive pettiness and delusional self-importance on display in his letter make him a similar source of conflict. And his status as the leader of one of the most powerful states gives his blowtorch personality unparalleled influence over delicate negotiations. The world is coming to realize that Trump’s imperiousness is highly flammable and resistant to all the diplomatic norms imbibed by the great powers since Wilhelm II’s disastrous reign.

Historical analogies like this one have their limits. The divergences between Trump and Wilhelm II, and the differences between their respective societies, are significant. They operate in domestic and international systems that are historically and institutionally far apart from one another.

Trump’s churlish letter to Kim, however, leads us back to Wilhelm II. The inherited language of diplomacy exists for a reason. It focuses attention on interests, cooperation, and stability among nations with different preferences and commitments. It also de-personalizes negotiations among leaders to facilitate crisis avoidance and de-escalation of conflict. Trump is the first major world leader since Wilhelm II to trash the careful and strategic language of diplomacy so flagrantly.

Trump’s actions point to the same isolation and militarism that brought the German monarch and his country to ruin. Wilhelm II witnessed the defeat of his empire, and he abdicated to ignominious exile in the Netherlands after millions of citizens died. Contemporary world leaders, including those in the U.S. Congress, must act vigorously to limit Trump’s power before he comes to a similar, and even more destructive, end.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

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