Trump-Goes-to-Korea Is the New Nixon-Goes-to-China

There are plenty of lessons to draw from America's diplomatic gambit in Korea — just probably not the ones you think.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first Lady Melania Trump at the National Assembly on Nov. 8, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and first Lady Melania Trump at the National Assembly on Nov. 8, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has been quick to claim credit for the historic meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. His most ardent supporters — including Moon — are even talking about nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This seems premature for a number of reasons: The April 27 declaration emphasized throughout that this was an initiative taken by the two Korean leaders and that they sought help rather than guidance on taking it forward; it is largely aspirational, with many steps to be taken before it leads to any transformational achievements; and it is, at most, vague on the key issue of denuclearization.

Meanwhile, North Korea has made great play of destroying a nuclear testing site that many considered damaged anyway and after it had claimed that the site was no longer needed because the country’s nuclear capability had already been proved. The date and location for the encounter between Kim and Trump are also still being decided. And there is a considerable gap between what the Americans have said they want and what the North Koreans have suggested is on offer.

Yet it would be hard to argue that Trump’s stirring of the Korean pot since he became president — moving from “fire and fury” and “Little Rocket Man” to his embrace of summitry — did not make a difference. At one level, this provided an impetus for the talks, as the two Korean leaders could see that if they did not take their own initiative, Trump’s bombast might create its own dynamic. The signs of what was to come lay in the coming together before this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. At another level, Trump’s apparently impromptu readiness to talk to Kim directly gave Moon all the cover required for his own direct talks. Trump has already talked up the Korean declaration, so it is hard to see how he is going to present his own summit as anything less than reinforcing a great foreign-policy breakthrough.

If this narrative takes hold, then Trump will become the latest example of one of foreign policy’s most persistent cliches — that hard-line hawkish leaders can do deals doves would desire but find impossible. The normal explanation is that hawks can pursue diplomatic compromises because there will be few people who are even more hard-line to attack them for being too soft and they can be confident that their more dovish opponents will give support. The classic examples are President Richard Nixon’s outreach to China, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peacemaking with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, and President Ronald Reagan’s arms reductions negotiations with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

As with all cliches, there is a kernel of truth here that has been lost through oversimplification. Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s was a bold move, but it was more than justified by geopolitics, absent any domestic considerations. Begin, for his part, was a reluctant peacemaker to the end. Sadat made him an offer at Camp David in 1978 that he really could not refuse, but there was no transformation from a hawk into a dove. His policies toward the Palestinians remained hard-line, and his invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had disastrous consequences. Then there was Reagan, a fervent anti-communist who was also always fearful of nuclear war; his interest in disarmament was wholly genuine.

It would therefore be unwise to use the Nixon-goes-to-China thesis as an argument to get hard-liners into power in the hope that they might then encourage peace. The proposition is nonetheless worth keeping in mind because it encourages two observations: one pointing to a weakness in a conservative foreign policy and the other to a weakness in liberal strategy.

The first, for conservatives, is that if tough policies marked by severe sanctions, military pressure, and harsh threats are to work, they must be combined with a capacity to take advantage of any easing of the target’s position. This means accepting that it is reasonable to have conversations with the target regime, however objectionable its ideology and practices. Not only must they talk with regimes considered obnoxious, but they must also rely on them to enact what has been agreed. In some ways, this is what makes it easier to negotiate with autocratic rather than democratic governments, as it is easier then to assume that orders will be followed. Past condemnations of a regime’s illegitimacy have to be set aside during negotiations; leaders who have been derided and denounced suddenly have to be talked up as fellow peace-seekers.

One of the reasons why Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, has not appeared as a natural dealmaker was made clear in a comment he made on Fox News in March (before he took up his current post). Success would depend on Kim confessing the “error of [his] ways” and renouncing the leadership of North Korea. “How do you know that the North Korean regime is lying?” Bolton asked. His answer: “Their lips are moving.” Yet there is no point in Trump proceeding on this basis, by making regime change a prior demand. He has instead described Kim as “honorable.” (This does not mean, of course, that trusting the regime to deliver will turn out to be warranted: Few specialists on North Korea would argue that Pyongyang’s implementation of previous agreements gives much reason to rely upon what the regime says now.)

The second observation, for liberals, is that widespread domestic political support is useful when undertaking major initiatives that depart from past policies, especially if they involve trusting foreign leaders who have been described in the past as inherently untrustworthy. This is why doves find it harder to follow their natural instincts than hawks. A good example was President Barack Obama’s promotion of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which has never enjoyed bipartisan support. Trump has long spoken of it in lurid terms as one of those many Obama deals that could not be any good simply because Obama was such a lousy dealmaker.

Because Trump has discussed foreign policy in such partisan terms, it may be that liberals will now take a more skeptical attitude (as they already have on Russia) than might once have been anticipated. But few will complain if Trump’s negotiations lead to North Korea opening up and starting to reform itself and if the 1953 Korean War armistice is turned into a peace treaty.

The problem for Trump’s reputation as a peacemaker is that his own deal will be assessed on how North Korea’s denuclearization is going to be guaranteed and verified and what the United States must offer in return. A promise not to invade the North is one thing; removal of the wherewithal to do so is quite another. Indeed, the understandable excitement over the coming together of the two Koreas has tended to obscure the trap that Trump may have set for himself. A key phrase in the declaration is that the two sides share “the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Thus, the South is already agreeing that the North is acting in good faith.

Yet the administration has asked to be judged on much more tangible demonstrations of progress. The choice Trump faces may well be accepting promises on denuclearization that will rightly be viewed as being of little value or else, if he pushes for more, acting as a spoiler of a major inter-Korean initiative that he has already hailed and for which he has sought personal praise.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. His new book, The Future of War: A History, will be published by PublicAffairs in October.

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