Some Summits Soar, Some Plunge
Nixon and Reagan managed to negotiate with Mao and Gorbachev because they had personal chemistry, common goals, and control of their domestic politics.
As Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un prepare for their June 12 meeting in Singapore, there are three crucial lessons they can learn from past summits, such as Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong’s encounter in the early 1970s and the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev summits of the late 1980s: They will need to establish common policy ground, manage their respective domestic politics, and forge trusting and respectful personal relationships.
The 1971-1972 opening between the United States and China would not have come about without the secret talks between U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that established some common policy objectives and eventually culminated in the Nixon-Mao summit. As statesmen, Kissinger and Zhou realized that they could only resolve key issues if they first transformed the overall strategic relationship. The 1972 Shanghai Communiqué affirmed that the United States and China would “conduct their relations on the principles of respect … without resorting to the use or threat of force” in a way that would “broaden the understanding between the two peoples.”
Kissinger pushed Zhou to pressure North Vietnam in ways the Soviets, Hanoi’s other main patron, had long resisted. Zhou would not go that far but did agree to limit Beijing’s support for continued war and to stop discouraging North Vietnam from seeking peace. On the issue of Taiwan, China’s initial position was to demand that Washington sever diplomatic recognition and scrap the U.S.-Taiwanese mutual defense treaty as preconditions for any other progress. The United States agreed on the so-called One China formulation that “Taiwan is a part of China” and affirmed that ending the mutual defense treaty was its “ultimate objective.”
While Kissinger and Zhou conducted much of the diplomacy, Nixon and Mao were crucial to managing the domestic politics. Zhou checked in with Mao, often many times each day, sometimes coming back into meetings taking a harder line. But when he made firm offers, such as the compromise on Taiwan, it was clear that Mao had signed off. On the U.S. side, special interest groups flexed their pro-Taiwan muscles through the media and congressional connections. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, told the press that the United States took a “propaganda beating.” But, as Nixon said to Mao, in what has become a classic explanation of hawkish leaders’ political advantage in pursuing peace, “those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.”
The personal trust and respect Kissinger and Zhou developed were also crucial factors. In an interview, Kissinger recounted how, at their very first meeting, he immediately offered a handshake — a symbolic contrast to the 1955 Geneva conference partitioning Vietnam, at which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had shaken hands with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov but had refused to do so with Zhou. That was “unforgivable,” Kissinger assured Zhou, as he later recounted to me in an interview. From that point on, in their nearly 41 hours of meetings over the course of the two secret trips, they engaged deeply and authentically, going beyond stilted talking points. Nixon and Mao had their own playful exchange in which Mao said “I ‘voted’ for you. … I ‘like’ rightists,” and Nixon teased, “Chiang Kai-shek calls the Chairman a bandit. What does the Chairman call Chiang Kai-shek?”
Leaders today can draw similar lessons from U.S.-Russian diplomacy in the 1980s. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty involved compromises on both sides and ended up mandating the deepest nuclear weapons cuts ever. While the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), making deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons, wasn’t finalized until President George H.W. Bush came into office, the 1987 and 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev summits pushed it forward in crucial ways. Both sides also began unprecedented cooperation on regional issues such as the Iran-Iraq War, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Central America, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
They established common ground by recognizing at the 1987 Washington summit that “differences are not insurmountable obstacles to progress in areas of mutual interest” and at the 1988 Moscow summit by agreeing that they were both determined to “prevent any war between the United States and Soviet Union, whether nuclear or conventional” while disavowing “any intention to achieve military superiority.”
Reagan faced political opposition mostly from the right; conservatives in Congress were appalled. The CIA insisted that it still was “hard to detect fundamental changes, currently or in prospect” in Moscow. Gorbachev, however, managed to hold onto power long enough to make the changes that would end the Cold War, even though he ultimately lost control of his domestic politics. While he survived the August 1991 coup attempt against him, he was so weakened that he was forced to resign by the end of that year.
The Reagan-Gorbachev personal relationship had a warmth that got them through many disagreements. At the closing press conference of their first summit, Gorbachev stressed how “a great deal of time was spent in the private sessions … looking one another straight in the eye.” Back in Washington, Reagan told journalists, “I think I’m some judge of acting, so I don’t think he was acting.” In his memoirs, Reagan spoke to “something very close to a friendship. … We could — and did — debate from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. But there was a chemistry that kept our conversations on a man-to-man basis, without hate or hostility.”
As the Singapore summit approaches, Trump and Kim are both well positioned to manage their domestic politics. Trump is not guaranteed a Nixon-goes-to-China effect, however. Senate Democrats are trying to stake out a position to his right, warning against a “flimsy” deal. And conservative Republicans may join liberals in pressing the White House on human rights issues. Still, these look more like political bumps than roadblocks. While vested military and bureaucratic interests have complicated nuclear weapons reductions in many other countries, the reverence in which Kim is held — the belief that “the Kim family are gods,” as former Defense Secretary William Perry put it — seems likely to make it easier for him to manage his own domestic politics.
The greater concern is the distance that needs to be closed to establish some common ground on policy. While issues such as formally ending the Korean War, the fate of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and Korean reunification do not have to be resolved immediately, sufficient compromise is needed for at least a road map and statements of common vision as with the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué and the Reagan-Gorbachev joint statements in 1987 and 1988.
Most fundamentally, both leaders need to flesh out what they mean by denuclearization, something neither has done so far. The North Korean nuclear weapons complex is so vast that the U.S. demand for “complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization” poses enormous practical and technical challenges. Estimates of the size of Pyongyang’s actual nuclear arsenal go as high as 60; it is worth recalling that neither Iran nor Libya had a single weapon. Estimates of the number of nuclear sites range from 40 to 100; even the lowest estimate amounts to more than three times as many sites as in Iran. The best-case scenarios for achieving full denuclearization would take 10-15 years, leaving plenty of time for North Korea to renege and Trump’s heralded deal to end up like the prior deals struck by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that Trump has repeatedly attacked.
For Kim, the key issue is whether any U.S. assurances forswearing regime change are actually credible. What about Libya, Kim has reportedly asked, where in 2003 Muammar al-Qaddafi made a deal with the United States giving up his programs for nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction programs only to be overthrown and killed eight years later? Or what about Iran, Kim might wonder, after having watched Trump renege on the 2015 nuclear deal despite Iran having largely abided by the agreement’s terms? And while Trump may think his lashing out at his G-7 allies the last few days makes him look strong, Kim may well be asking: If this is how he treats close friends and tramples long-standing commitments, how stable would any common policy ground between us be?
The greatest risk of all is that Trump and Kim will not develop any personal chemistry. These two leaders show little capacity for the statesmanship of Kissinger and Zhou or the warmth of Reagan and Gorbachev. Trump doesn’t tend to show much respect to his interlocutors, let alone his adversaries. His operating mode is attack. He neither cultivates nor conveys trust. Having veered from disparaging Kim as “little rocket man” to calling him “very honorable,” Trump now boasts about sizing Kim up “within the first minute.”
Last September, when tensions were running high, Kim retorted by labeling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” More recently, the harsh rhetoric from Kim’s underlings has targeted Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Personality profiles of Kim, limited as they are, show a pattern of sensitivity to nuance and loss of face. As the writer Mark Bowden notes, when one is accustomed to operating in a political system in which “no one dare[s] criticize him” and most adopt a “Yes, Marshal” approach, Kim’s reflex is to command rather than bargain.
Maybe Trump and Kim can be sufficiently motivated to break out of their respective molds (perhaps by the prospect of Nobel Prizes). That possibility can’t be dismissed. But it also can’t be counted on. Had Las Vegas bookies posted U.S.-China odds in early 1971, the smart money would have been on breakdown rather than breakthrough. So, too, on a peaceful end to the Cold War in the late 1980s. Successful summits like those can, of course, lead to historic breakthroughs. The risk is that unsuccessful ones will make the situation even more dangerous than before.