Is Donald Trump’s announcement of talks with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un his Nixon goes to China moment? As recently as last October, Trump publicly rebuked his (now former) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for leaving the door open to talks, concluding that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”. This followed Kim’s promise “to tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”. Now we are told that dotard and dictator are due to meet.
As Trump continues to break all the rules of post-Cold War international relations – on anything from alliance management to trade and nuclear non-proliferation – it is worth remembering that the so-called madman theory of diplomacy at least has a distinguished heritage.
Niccolò Machiavelli once wrote that “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”. Richard Nixon was said to test the same proposition at the height of the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. According to his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, Nixon had played up his unpredictability – supported by a back catalogue of ferocious Commie-bashing that stretched back two decades – in order to send a signal to Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi that he was prepared to countenance nuclear war.
According to Haldeman’s account, this was a lesson he had learned at the feet of Dwight Eisenhower, who had sought a truce to the Korean War in 1953 by getting word to the Chinese that he was willing to drop the bomb to bring hostilities to a close. By 1972, the year that Nixon went to China, his secretary of state Henry Kissinger also reflected on the president’s tried and tested strategy to “‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further”.
So Donald Trump may yet become a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. If he succeeds in denuclearising the Korean peninsula he would be a more worthy recipient than Barack Obama in 2009. In truth, the gamble on direct talks with Kim Jong-un is based on an exaggerated sense of his own genius for deal-making rather than a careful reading of history or a painstakingly constructed plan. As such, it has none of the chessboard choreography that underlay nuclear diplomacy in the Cold War era. And it comes against the backdrop of continued chaos and confusion in the White House.
The story of how the opening for talks came about may well become a fable of the dysfunction in the court of Trump. On 8 March, Chung Eui-yong, national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, arrived at the White House for a scheduled meeting with his counterpart, HR McMaster. On learning of his presence, Trump asked to see Chung himself. In that discussion, Chung revealed that Kim Jong-un had made an offer to meet Trump in person. A meeting with a US president is something that the North Korean regime has sought for decades, but has resurfaced in the context of the improved relations between the two Koreas following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Before his officials could intervene to urge caution, Trump appears to have jumped on the suggestion of a summit and told the South Koreans to go public with the news. A surprised Mr Chung said that he would first have to call President Moon, who subsequently gave the green light. At 5pm, Trump popped into the White House briefing room to hint to reporters that a major announcement was coming on Korea. By 7pm, Chung found himself in the dusk on the White House driveway making an impromptu statement that the president of the United States had expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader.
The meeting has been pencilled in for May, though it is unclear where it will take place and on what terms. With Kim likely to refuse any visit to the White House, and the Americans eager to avoid handing a propaganda victory to his regime with a pageant in Pyongyang, the most likely outcome would be on it taking place in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.
That is if it happens at all. Both defence secretary James Mattis and McMaster (whose position is said to be under threat) are thought to be opposed to a meeting. The befuddled Tillerson, on an official visit in Africa, was taken ill and initially unavailable for comment. On 13 February, Trump tweeted that he had a new secretary of state.
If Trump calculates that his hard line has yielded this opening, then one could be forgiven for guessing that Kim might believe the same. Meanwhile, the apparent willingness to consider “denuclearisation” is so ambiguous as to mean almost anything. Having witnessed the fate of the last nuclear-armed dictator to “come nicely” and give up his missiles – Colonel Gaddafi in Libya – Kim is unlikely to be in a hurry to dispense with his greatest bargaining tool.
At the end of last year, the view from White House watchers was that Trump was gearing up for war. Much was made of the saga of Victor D Cha, an academic and former Bush administration official, who had been expected to be confirmed as ambassador to South Korea before Christmas. Despite being known as a hawk, Cha had expressed opposition to a “bloody nose” or “limited strike” military option against the regime. Having set himself against some prominent voices on the National Security Council, his nomination was withdrawn. Now the administration is attempting a different course but Cha, writing in the New York Times, warns the stakes are just as high. If handled with care, a meeting might provide a unique opportunity brought about by an unlikely combination of bluster and force. But a failure would increase the likelihood of war by raising the stakes and exhausting the diplomatic last resort.
John Bew is an NS contributing writer
This article appears in the 14 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game