HERE’S a shocking statement: President Trump is basically right that the world is too dangerous and that the United States should hold peace talks with, let’s see, Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Russian President Vladimir Putin and any other autocrats who are making trouble.
American values tell us to oppose the undemocratic policies of these leaders and their blood-stained brethren, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But our interests tell us to avoid war and seek agreements where possible.
The problem is that beyond the “why can’t we all get along better?” bromides, Trump doesn’t offer clear ideas for easing the underlying tensions. Suppose all the bad guys came to the bargaining table and said, okay, let’s deal. Trump is still so low on the learning curve (and his administration so pathetically understaffed) that I’m not sure he would know what to answer.
Trump’s “concert of nations” approach has a weird appeal, in this period when the old order has so obviously broken down. He’s just naive enough, a bit like Ronald Reagan, to think we don’t need all these wars and that he’s the guy to fix things. Surely that explains his strange comment about how Andrew Jackson (his ego ideal) could have prevented the Civil War. It expressed Trump’s own aspiration to prevent wars.
Trump’s flurry of recent diplomatic comments has been as volatile as a fever chart. He talked last week of “major, major conflict” with North Korea, whose leader’s rationality he earlier questioned. But then on Monday, Trump said he would be “honored” to talk to Kim, “under the right circumstances.”
Trump had accused China during the 2016 campaign of “raping” America and threatened initially to alter the one- China foundation of U.S. policy. But now, Beijing is the cornerstone of his strategy for dealing with North Korea. Some Asia specialists fear that he has all but subcontracted some aspects of policy to China’s Xi, seemingly his new best friend.
The charm offensive even included a Tuesday phone call with Russia’s Putin (otherwise under FBI investigation for organizing a covert action to destabilize American politics).
Flattery and cajolery are eternal parts of the diplomatic tool kit. (Ask Henry Kissinger.) But rarely have they been deployed so extravagantly as by the verbose Trump.
After several hours at Mar-a-Lago, Xi was touted as “a very good man.” Later, the bubble machine turned to Kim, whom Trump described as a “pretty smart cookie” who knows how to hold power.
Trump’s basic ambition to shake up the status quo makes sense, but let me offer some caveats:
? Trump is too vain and self-centered in his approach. All presidents believe in the efficacy of their personalities, but Trump’s braggadocio risks making him look ridiculous. He’s too impatient for quick wins. Countries will feed him flattering comments and what appear to be concessions — hoping to bind him to their agendas. That has already happened to some extent with China, which has drawn the United States into its framework for protecting Chinese interests in Asia.
? He’s too inexperienced to rely so much on his gut instincts. He doesn’t have a very educated gut, to put it bluntly. Aides who brief his team come away amazed that Trump never seems to have thought before about the U.S. nuclear deterrent, or the complications of Chinese-Korean history. Harry S. Truman had read a library full of history books before his accidental presidency. Not so Trump.
? He’s so full of bluster at the start of negotiations, and so accommodating later, that he risks looking like a man who can be had. Potential adversaries learn to wait Trump out. Experience tells them that if they hold tight, the Twitter storm will blow itself out. Once that perception builds, it becomes a serious problem — encouraging the president to take unwise risks just to restore a measure of his unpredictability.
? He needs to think more about process. Let’s imagine that North Korea announced tomorrow it would suspend nuclear tests and return to the bargaining table. What position would the United States take? I’d like to see a framework like the “two plus four” talks that united Germany in 1990 — that is, a direct round of confidence-building and armistice discussions between North and South Korea, framed by denuclearization talks backed by the United States, China, Russia and Japan. Does the Trump team have a similar strategy? Who knows?
Trump’s disruptive personality has usefully opened the door for diplomacy. But what comes next? Never mind getting to “yes.” Does the Trump team even know what “yes” might look like?