Here’s Hoping Trump-Kim Isn’t Like Kennedy-Khrushchev

The inauspicious history of inexperienced presidents personally negotiating with confident adversaries.

U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Donald Trump. (AFP/Getty Images and Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Donald Trump. (AFP/Getty Images and Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

In one sense, President Donald Trump’s decision to negotiate directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is unprecedented: The heads of state of their respective countries have never previously met in any forum. But Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to meet one-on-one with a foreign adversary in a high-stakes summit. History offers plenty of examples Trump would do well to study.

Presidents, it turns out, rarely achieve very much in such negotiations. Most often, these meetings unsettle traditional allies and disappoint eager citizens. They rarely produce breakthroughs. And the biggest risk is that an acrimonious and ill-prepared meeting can push the two sides closer to war.

That is what happened in June 1961, when a tough-talking and impatient new American president, John F. Kennedy, traveled to Vienna to meet with a wily and well-rehearsed Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. In Kennedy’s own words, the summit was the “roughest thing in my life.” Khrushchev “just beat [the] hell out of me.”

Kennedy was, in fact, quite tough at Vienna, refusing to back down from American resistance to communist advances in Europe and Asia. Kennedy also refused to concede to Soviet demands for disarmament. The president arrived in Vienna with a firm grasp of U.S. strategic priorities, and he stuck to them.

Kennedy’s problems arose because he did not have a constructive strategic proposal to offer at the meeting. He arrived in Vienna prepared to charm and cajole his adversary as he often did in encounters with constituents and allies. He was not prepared to address the Soviet leader’s needs or create new mutually beneficial realities in areas of Cold War tension, particularly in Berlin, Cuba, and Indochina.

The leader of the free world always looks weak when he cannot promise a path to improved circumstances for citizens on both sides of the negotiating table. The presumption for progress rests on the shoulders of the president because he is so powerful, and he suffers a major defeat when he fails to deliver in a one-on-one setting. Kennedy learned this lesson in Vienna, and the near-nuclear apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis was a sobering consequence.

When they met, Khrushchev subjected Kennedy to a barrage of accusations regarding U.S. support for anti-Soviet forces in Europe and intervention in the developing world. Khrushchev also condemned the United States for building a massive nuclear arsenal, many times larger than the Soviet arsenal at the time. The United States and its allies had far more wealth, nuclear weapons, and global reach than the Soviet Union, and U.S. military bases surrounded Moscow’s territory. Khrushchev put Kennedy on the defensive throughout their discussions, demanding that a stronger United States curtail its military activities and address Soviet insecurity before the two countries could form a peaceful relationship.

The U.S. president was not prepared to shift the conversation away from these powerful arguments. Although the Soviet Union was expanding its influence across the globe and rapidly increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, it remained much weaker than the United States. Kennedy rebutted Khrushchev’s accusations of aggressive intentions, but he could not deny the reality of U.S. economic and military superiority. From such a position, how could the president refute Soviet claims of insecurity? Kennedy found it difficult to divert the conversation away from Khrushchev’s contentions that a more powerful United States had to make concessions to a cornered Soviet Union if it wanted peace.

U.S. economic and military superiority is indeed a liability when the president enters one-on-one negotiations with an adversary powerful enough to resist Washington — and also weak enough to claim victimhood. In Vienna, Khrushchev challenged U.S. calls for open access to Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe while simultaneously condemning the United States for encircling his society. Kennedy looked recalcitrant because he could not chart a strategic alternative that did not involve more American strength and more Soviet weakness. Khrushchev could never accept such a one-sided U.S. position, and he used it to justify his own aggression in response, especially when he decided, a year later, to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.

President Ronald Reagan learned a similar lesson when he first met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985. During this summit, the two leaders talked past one another. Reagan extolled American benevolence and defended work on a new Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev pushed back against what he described as Reagan’s efforts to escalate the nuclear arms race. He blamed the United States for trying to exploit its technological advantages to bully Moscow. This was a self-serving claim for the leader of a society that had invaded Afghanistan, but it put Reagan, like Kennedy, on the defensive. The Geneva Summit ended without progress — a second example where the first presidential meeting with a foreign adversary failed to match expectations.

Kennedy and Reagan eventually made progress with their adversaries when they moved beyond defending existing U.S. positions and offered strategic alternatives. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy agreed to curtail U.S. efforts to overthrow the communist regime in Cuba, and he removed America’s nuclear missiles from Turkey — both steps designed to reduce Soviet insecurities and build a cooperative relationship with Moscow.

Reagan followed the disappointing summit in Geneva with more personal outreach to Gorbachev one year later in Reykjavik, Iceland. The president pulled his adversary away from their handlers, and he made an emotional case for eliminating all nuclear weapons. Gorbachev was surprised and persuaded. As he recounts in his memoirs, Gorbachev recognized that Reagan was committed to more than just American superiority. The U.S. and Soviet leaders began negotiations about eliminating the nuclear threats at the core of Cold War conflict, and this process produced the first agreements to cut the arsenals of both superpowers, reduce tensions in Europe, and even consider the reunification of Germany.

Meetings between presidents and foreign adversaries were crucial for reducing Cold War tensions in the 1960s and 1980s, but the initial summits did not produce immediate results. They created disappointments and, in Kennedy’s case, increased conflict. Progress came only when the adversaries saw their summits as the beginnings of relationships that, over time, can reduce suspicions and build trust. Both sides must believe the other wants peace. Both sides must see strategic benefits for themselves. And both sides must come to feel more invested in negotiated progress, rather than propaganda victories.

This process takes time. It requires deep study of the issues and the players. It also demands a willingness to offer new strategic ideas that address the deeper sources of conflict, not just immediate provocations. Kennedy and Reagan only made progress when they started to empathize with how Khrushchev and Gorbachev saw the world and offered real shifts in U.S. strategic behavior to address legitimate Soviet security needs.

That brings us to Trump’s planned meeting with Kim. The North Korean leader will surely come ready to condemn American bullying of his small, poor, and insecure state. He will point to the presence of U.S. forces on his borders, the pressure of sanctions on his economy, and the continual threats to his regime. He will also expose the hypocrisy of U.S. calls for nuclear disarmament in North Korea as America maintains its own large nuclear arsenal.

Like Kennedy, Trump will not succeed if he simply responds to these arguments with the legitimate U.S. defenses of containment on the Korean Peninsula. The United States is much stronger, and the expectation in any meeting will be that Washington must offer some concessions for the weaker negotiator to feel more secure and therefore capable of a change in behavior.

The task for the Trump administration is to plan carefully for a set of strategic proposals that will reshape the region and the Korean Peninsula, including perhaps reintegrating Pyongyang into the global trade system in return for major disarmament measures. If Trump wants to make this meeting a success, he must become the strategic agenda-setter, with pragmatic and creative new ideas, and he must invest in an evolving relationship with his adversary.

History tells us there will be no world-changing “deal” when Trump and Kim meet. The leaders can begin to chart a path to compromise and stability. Poor preparation and inflated expectations pose the greatest risk of pushing both sides even closer to war. The Trump-Kim meeting must replace threats and bluster with patience and mutual understanding — a lesson Kennedy and Reagan learned after early disappointments.

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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