Despite Setbacks, Trump’s Blunt Diplomacy Could Eventually Work

He's had one of the worst weeks as president. But his crude blend of threats and flattery could eventually pay off with North Korea and China.

A banner showing U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands next to the words "Welcome to Vietnam" in Hanoi on Feb. 25. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
A banner showing U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands next to the words "Welcome to Vietnam" in Hanoi on Feb. 25. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Even for a historically unpopular U.S. president, this was a very bad week. Between Michael Cohen’s devastating testimony—and the equally dire threats of worse to come—and Donald Trump’s abrupt departure from Hanoi with no deal with North Korea in hand, dump-on-Trump memes have flourished riotously in the Washington media hothouse.

The told-you-so response to Trump’s faltering North Korea diplomacy was especially pronounced. The dispute between Pyongyang and Washington over what went wrong in Hanoi “underscored the risk of leader-to-leader diplomacy: When it fails, there are few places to go, no higher-up to step in and cut a compromise that saves the deal,” David Sanger of the New York Times wrote. The risk now, pundits said, is that the North Koreans will escalate further, even if they don’t immediately resume testing. The door to further provocation was already open, noted Richard Johnson, a nuclear fuel expert at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, because there had been nothing in the earlier Singapore declaration about freezing fissile material production. “As we speak they’re probably producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium,” he said earlier in the week.

As usual, everyone is very likely speaking too soon. The North Koreans may have left Hanoi in a huff, but what followed was Pyongyang’s remarkable—indeed unprecedented—effort to pursue some follow-up diplomacy in the Western media. Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters that Trump’s explanation for the breakdown had been inaccurate, puzzling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. U.S. officials later conceded that when the president said North Korea had asked for a “lifting of all sanctions,” he was only referring to those imposed since March 2016, and Pyongyang appeared somewhat appeased. As The Associated Press’s ace Pyongyang watcher Eric Talmadge put it, a day after the summit ended: “In a much softer tone than the officials at the late-night news conference, the North’s state-run media … indicated that the North was looking ahead to more talks.”

According to a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations: “We need to let the dust settle a little bit, but as I said, the North Korean press reports of their version of the summit that came out … suggests to me that like us there’s still ample opportunity to talk.”

Which makes one think: Perhaps Trump’s unusual blend of flattery and force can succeed in the end—and not just with North Korea, but China as well. After a yearlong trade war, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that Washington and Beijing are working on a 150-page trade agreement—one that could occasion a summit meeting between Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping as early as March.

Let’s face it: for better or worse, Trump has changed the way American diplomacy functions. Diplomacy is usually a genteel game, and the polite people who practice it are generally not very good at making threats. Indeed, long before President Donald Trump arrived on the scene, even some U.S. diplomats used to complain that when it came to leveraging America’s enormous postwar power, one hand rarely knew what the other was doing. Typically the officials who negotiate America’s trade agreements—the ones who throw open U.S. markets—don’t know what’s going on with the people who negotiate military-to-military deals, and vice versa.

“The U.S. government maintains no central ledger in which bilateral relationships are tracked,” Suzanne Nossel, a Foreign Policy columnist and savvy former aide to Richard Holbrooke—one of the few U.S. diplomats who did make a practice of bluntly combining economic and military threats—wrote in a 2001 essay for the National Interest. “There is no place to turn to find out what the United States has done for a particular country lately, or what a country may want or fear.”

But from the start of his presidency, Trump has made clear in his crude way that he, at least, is keeping a ledger. On it, he is tabulating in his own way his estimate of U.S. economic and military power versus that of various other countries. And judging from the way he has talked to both allies such as the Europeans and adversaries such as the North Koreans, he wants everyone to know that he’s going to leverage America’s military and economic dominance to the hilt. The U.S. president has often done this in the crudest manner imaginable—his worst side was on embarrassing display on Wednesday when his former lawyer Michael Cohen called him a “con man” and a “cheat” in dramatic Capitol Hill testimony. But what if it works?

Bullies, after all, don’t always get their comeuppance, as in the movies. Sometimes they win.

In the case of China, Trump has upset the Beltway pundits by launching a full-scale assault on the delicate calculus that for decades has driven U.S.-China relations and made officials in Washington reluctant to confront Beijing too aggressively. China, after all, is still one of America’s biggest creditors, and many experts believe every effort must be made to keep it part of the international system.

But Trump has mounted a trade war that has damaged the U.S. economy—especially for farmers, a key Trump constituency. Ultra-hawks such as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have persistently painted China as a hostile strategic adversary in ways that—under the rule of an increasingly dictatorial and hostile Xi Jinping—could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trump himself has spent months boasting that he’s going to force Xi into concessions because “China’s not doing well now. And it puts us in a very strong position. We are doing very well,” as he told reporters last month.

It sounded like more typical Trump bravado at the time, but it was, in substance, true: China’s economy, especially its indebted corporate sector, is hurting, with a further slowdown expected—one that the Chinese Communist Party fears could undermine its authority. The U.S. economy, meanwhile, continues to show strong growth that is expected to persist at least into next year. And last Sunday, Trump tweeted that “the U.S. has made substantial progress in our trade talks with China on important structural issues including intellectual property protection, technology transfer, agriculture, services, currency, and many other issues.”

The details remain unknown, and Trump can be expected to hype any new China trade deal as the best ever negotiated—much as he did his “new NAFTA,” the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement that added only a few extras into the old NAFTA—when in truth it likely grants many concessions to Beijing on long-festering issues such as tech transfer protections and state-subsidized unfair trade. Some experts mainly expect a Chinese pledge to buy a lot more U.S. goods, knowing that Trump appears to view the U.S. trade deficit like a corporate loss.

“I can see a package of big buys coming, not over the next year but spread over the next 10 years, that gets you over a trillion dollars” pledged, said William Reinsch, a China trade expert and former senior Commerce Department official. “Which I suspect is always what Trump wanted to see. I don’t think he cares all that much about intellectual property.”

With North Korea, Trump is trying something that no other U.S. president has, a combination of sometimes excessive flattery backed by unprecedented threat. At the summit in Hanoi that began Wednesday, Trump began by renewing his flattery fest with Kim—coyly waving a Vietnamese flag at Kim in yet another attempt to convince him, as Trump sought to do in Singapore last year, that North Korea can be at once rich, secure, and communist. But some people have already forgotten what may well have brought Kim to the table during that high-tension time in 2017 when Trump was deriding Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” and the North Korean leader was calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” That was Trump’s pledge before a shocked United Nations General Assembly in 2017 to “totally destroy” North Korea if it didn’t stop developing a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile threat to U.S. shores, and his seemingly casual remark a month earlier, while vacationing at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States” or it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Some experts fear that Trump, who is eager to orchestrate the big deals he’s been promising the American people for two years, may give up too much to Kim—for example, the promise of a peace treaty—in exchange for too little. All that appears to be on offer from the North Koreans—apart from a broad commitment to denuclearize “the peninsula”—have been vague promises to dismantle all uranium enrichment and plutonium reactors and open all sites to international inspection. Trump somewhat cavalierly remarked earlier this week that he’s “not in a rush” and “as long as there’s no testing, we’re happy,” further annoying some nuclear experts who fear he is being played by Pyongyang. Most are in agreement that without a far more detailed North Korean accounting of its nuclear and missile facilities, future negotiations will fail.

“One of the big frustrations is we don’t know where they make things, how much they make, what kind of weapons they have,” said David Albright, a physicist who runs the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security. “Is it 10 or 50 [bombs]? We need some of that out of this summit—the lay of the land, what needs to be denuclearized.”

Even so, some North Korea nuclear experts, such as Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of the nation’s preeminent authorities on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, are not all that displeased with Trump’s gradual approach. They agree somewhat that the gravest danger remains a nuclear-armed missile—which, without further testing, North Korea is unlikely to perfect. “The impact the no testing has had so far on significantly slowing the North’s nuclear program has not been appreciated,” Hecker told Foreign Policy.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Johnson said that as long as Pyongyang is not testing a missile re-entry vehicle—which U.S. officials believe it is not—Trump has a point in saying there’s no rush. “I’m somewhat pleased by that comment,” he said, noting that U.S. negotiator Stephen Biegun has apparently muted Bolton and other hawks by laying out a phased approach. “Earlier folks were arguing we have to do it all in a year or no doing it at all. Put in boxes and crates and fly it off to Tennessee. That was never going to happen.”

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University, added: “It’s clear that we’re in way better place than we were in 2017.”

The days and weeks ahead will tell how much better. And things could get a lot uglier, especially with Trump throwing trans-Atlantic relations into doubt by treating longtime U.S. allies such as France and Germany much as he’s treated China, dunning them for money.

But at the moment the 45th president’s unconventional approach to international relations cannot be entirely discounted.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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