Kim Jong Un Gets to Sit at the Cool Table Now
Trump’s handshake gave North Korea the status boost marginal states crave.
In a June 12 editorial, the Washington Post described the recently concluded summit in Singapore as a “triumph for Kim Jong Un and his North Korean regime. A dictator who ordered the murder of his own family members, and who oversees a gulag comparable to those of Hitler and Stalin, was able to parade on the global state as a legitimate statesman.” Indeed, numerous commentators contend that the summit conferred upon Kim Jong Un much-desired legitimacy as the first leader of his country to be treated as an equal by the United States, while simultaneously legitimating North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.
This isn’t a new angle. Both supporters and critics of U.S. President Donald Trump are quick to accuse one another of granting rogue states dangerous legitimacy. In 2008, when candidate Barack Obama pledged to meet with adversaries, liberals defended his position as prudent statesmanship, while conservatives claimed that he would naively legitimate aggressive and brutal regimes. Mercedes Schlapp, the current White House director of strategic communications, tweeted out criticism of President Obama for meeting with “dictator Raul Castro” in 2016, and suggested that next would be “shakes hand with NK dictator Kim.”
So, when does the legitimacy offered by a presidential handshake matter? American leaders regularly meet with authoritarian leaders as equals, whether as partners, allies, or rivals; the international system is defined by formal, legal equality of sovereign states. The key is how such meetings and actions affect status — the informal social hierarchies that underpin the world order as surely as the pecking order in a high school. And in that regard, Kim may well have come out ahead.
Why do leaders care about status? The simplest answer: They are human beings, and some are more susceptible than others. Trump is particularly obsessive about his place in pecking orders, unusually craving of recognition from members of status groups he desires membership in, and uncommonly demanding of deference from those he views as his inferiors. This may explain his apparent affinity for autocrats like Kim, who operate in an environment hypersensitive to the dynamics of interpersonal social dominance. But status is also important at a national level — especially for pariah states like North Korea, left scavenging on the outside of the system.
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The idea of legitimacy is often weaponized in domestic discourse. When diplomacy involves enemies and rivals — especially those representing states governed by different ideologies and political systems — it is both cheap and easy for opposition parties to accuse leaders of granting their enemies undeserved legitimacy. Given the United States’ self-image as a beacon of freedom and democratic values, these criticisms tap into a deep vein of nationalist sentiment.
Such accusations are also extremely difficult to disprove because legitimacy is difficult to measure and hard to connect to specific outcomes. North Korean propaganda has touted the Singapore summit as evidence of Kim Jong Un’s masterful leadership. But this will hardly make the difference between regime stability and popular revolution. Realists, as well as some left-wing defenders of the summit, might even argue that obsessing about “legitimating” hostile regimes through high-level meetings and summits reflects American hubris, if not outright narcissism: The notion that U.S. officials are so very important that their attentions and symbolic gestures of recognition can make or break foreign governments.
There’s truth to all of this, but it goes too far. To understand why, we should start not with legitimacy, but with status, which Marina Duque, a researcher at Princeton University’s Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance, defines as “an effective claim to social esteem in terms of privileges.” Sovereign states may be formally equals, but the international system is full of status hierarchies. A large body of scholarship finds that concerns over status play an important role in world politics. Some states acquire specific weapons systems, such as aircraft carriers, not primarily for their military utility but because their possession is associated with membership in the “club” of great powers.
Some status hierarchies are explicitly built into the design of international institutions, such as the system of permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. Others are byproducts of formal and informal arrangements. Membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for example, amounts to being part of a prestigious club; the same is true of the G-7. States also compete for status in a variety of different fields, including international sporting competitions and international rankings of universities. Many now seek to game international indices, even ones that originated for reasons completely unrelated to international status hierarchies.
How does a state know that it has status in a particular club? Duque writes that it “depends on recognition: it concerns identification processes in which an actor receives admission to a club once they are considered to follow the rules of membership.” And this recognition — or the lack of it — can profoundly shape international behavior. States which receive recognition might prove more willing to cooperate than those that do not. Michelle Murray, a political scientist at Bard College, argues that Britain’s willingness to accept of the United States assuaged the latter’s status concerns, and thus turned the two countries from rivals into friends. In contrast, states that are denied status recognition may turn to aggression. Steven Ward of Cornell University argues that “status immobility” drove rising powers, such as Germany before World War I and Japan before World War II, to mount militarized challenges to the international order.
There’s also evidence that recognition of social dominance — of comparative high status — provides benefits to leaders both at home and abroad. Have you ever cheered for your country’s competitors at the Olympics or checked its standing in the medal count — and felt good about its victories? This is because national identity is a potent status group in the modern world. Indeed, some studies suggest that victories in sporting events increase nationalist sentiment and contribute to the onset of inter-state conflict. Leaders have reason to expect that evidence of status recognition by foreign officials provides a kind of symbolic capital that enhances their political standing — their legitimacy — at home.
This may be an overlooked dynamic in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative: to showcase China’s arrival, specially under his stewardship, as a world power leading and garnering the respect of other nations. In Xi’s report to the 19th Communist Party Congress last October, he promised the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a final triumph over the so-called century of humiliation at the hands of the Western powers.
Leaders need not be correct about the benefits of international status; they may overestimate its importance for their political survival. But as long as, say, Kim believes that recognition as an equal by an American president is important to his domestic legitimacy, then it will matter to him. Moreover, in a country like North Korea, the real audience may not be the average citizen, but other elites in the ruling coalition. The Singapore summit in general, and his treatment by Trump in particular, provides a potent argument for Kim that his approach to securing the country and getting out from under sanctions is paying dividends.
And status matters for reasons beyond human psychology and domestic legitimacy. How might Kim use the legitimacy associated with North Korea’s newfound status for international gain? Historical evidence suggests it is more difficult to contain revisionist states when they can persuade (at least some) audiences of the legitimacy of their aims. If North Korea can now make a claim to being a member in good — or, at least, better — standing of the international system, then it might be more difficult to continue to isolate the Kim regime, even if it fails to move on denuclearization.
Beijing has already invoked the Singapore summit as grounds for sanctions relief. Adolf Hitler successfully campaigned against the Treaty of Versailles by pointing to how it violated Germany’s rights as a legitimate member of international society. Otto von Bismarck demobilized attempts to prevent Prussian expansion and, finally German unification, by using broadly similar appeals to widely accepted norms. These tactics do not need to convince every skeptical policymaker in foreign countries; they merely need to make containment and isolation efforts more politically contentious, and hence more difficult.
Thus, critics who worry about American presidents providing legitimacy to aggressive foreign regimes have a point: Giving North Korea higher status could generate broader legitimacy for Kim that gives him strategic advantages at home and abroad. The United States remains (for now) atop the international pecking order. This makes it the most important global actor when it comes to conferring status in general, and membership in higher-ranked status groups in particular.
North Korea needs American recognition precisely because of its successful marginalization and exclusion. If Trump refuses to shake hands with Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, no one would seriously conclude that Canada had lost its standing as a member of the elite club of advanced industrial democracies. Indeed, for Trudeau, Angela Merkel, or Emmanuel Macron symbolic assertions of social dominance vis-à-vis Trump might actually enhance their legitimacy with important audiences—a calculation easier to make for leaders whose membership in high-status ‘international clubs’ remains extremely secure.
Similarly, while easing the embargo on Cuba matters for the ability of the regime to deliver economic goods to its citizens, Obama’s awkward 2016 handshake with Raúl Castro was not likely terribly significant. The Obama administration had already agreed to a process of readmission to the Organization of American States in 2009. By the time of the handshake Cuba was not particularly isolated diplomatically; it was, by and large, a recognized member of good standing in the community of states.
The same is emphatically not the case for North Korea, which remains a “rogue state” with few international friends and little presence in international institutions outside of the United Nations. Indeed, writing two months prior to the summit, Duque noted that “great powers do not invite it to sit at the main table. … the attention given to North Korea looks more like the attention given to a low-status actor who misbehaves.” Thus, a summit with the president of the United States — one complete with hype and pageantry — seems a much more important symbol that North Korea will soon join the club of not just normal states, but important ones.
At the same time, if North Korea is going to capitalize on its newfound status, it’s up to the Kim regime to turn the handshake into something far more significant. Real status — the type that gives states significant benefits — requires more than a summit; it means ongoing and committed participation in the society of states.
China’s emergence as a great power might have started with Nixon’s visit and continued with U.S. recognition and engagement in 1979, but it took close to two decades and China’s own acceptance of and participation in international institutions to secure great-power status. Likewise, India’s increasing legitimacy as a nuclear power cannot be reduced to the United States’ tacit recognition of its weapons program under the George W. Bush administration; it is India’s persistent efforts to “play by the rules” that has changed its status, and allowed it to reap the benefits of the international nuclear regime. Critics are right that Trump’s handshake has given Kim an invitation into the club of legitimate states. But it’s not clear yet where that invitation will lead.
Stacie E. Goddard is Jane Bishop ’51 Associate Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College