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Donald Trump and the art of the diplomatic handshake

When Reagan shook hands with Gorbachev, a “spark of mutual trust” ignited between the two. Now, Trump warmly greets Kim Jong-un while spurning G7 allies.

So they shook hands. The president of the United States and the supreme leader of North Korea, dictator of one of the most reclusive and regimented societies in the world. Kim Jong-un secured the international recognition he craved. What Donald Trump gained from their meeting in Singapore is less clear; it will be many months before we find out.

But it was the image that went around the world. Not surprisingly, because on one level summitry is all about symbolism. A few months ago the two of them had been trading insults (“rocket man”, “mentally deranged”) and blustering about nuclear war. Now they were smiling and shaking hands, apparently treating each other as equals. 

Open hand or clenched fist. The graphic contrast is simple, and it’s rooted in everyday life. Perhaps the classic handshake moment of modern summitry came on 21 February 1972 when Richard Nixon began his ice-breaking summit in Beijing – the first time an American president had set foot in “Red China”, and less than 20 years since the two countries had fought each other, at great cost, in the Korean War. Nixon had been primed in advance with stories of enduring Chinese resentment from 1954, when US secretary of state John Foster Dulles had refused to shake the hand of foreign minister Zhou Enlai at the Geneva peace conference on Indochina. So, that February morning, Nixon marched down the steps of Air Force One with his arm outstretched – almost like a robot. “Your handshake came over the vastest ocean in the world,” Zhou declared, “twenty-five years of no communication.”

Yet summitry is about substance as well as symbolism. It took the United States and the People’s Republic of China seven years to move from shaking hands to opening full diplomatic relations. Just what substance lies behind the Trump-Kim summit is far from clear. A vague joint declaration pledging “complete denuclearisation” is not the same as a step-by-step process leading to North Korea “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantling its nuclear weapons”. CVID, as it is known, has long been the goal of international arms control negotiators. There was no mention, either, of human rights to the supremo of an Asian gulag. And no consultation with America’s regional allies, notably Japan and South Korea, before Trump talked of cancelling US military exercises in the south – a long-standing issue for Pyongyang and its Beijing paymaster. Is this a win-win summit or a Kim-win summit? On the face of it, the latter. Trump has given Kim international standing without setting any conditions. Whether Singapore has any deeper meaning will depend on the small print of whatever formal agreements follow.

Consider the lessons of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits of 1985-88. After six years of no superpower negotiations and a great deal of mutual name-calling (notably the US president’s “evil empire” speech in 1983), Reagan finally met the new, young Soviet leader in Geneva in November 1985. Both men circled around each other, with a good deal of posturing and bombast, but they also clicked on a human level.

Their handshake at the end of the first day, Gorbachev recalled, was like “a spark of electric mutual trust which ignited between us”. According to Reagan’s official biographer, they “locked hands and eyes with real affection”.

Yet it took two years of hard work before that spark led to a sustained diplomatic chain reaction, resulting in the abolition of all superpower intermediate-range nuclear forces in 1987 and Reagan’s repudiation of the “evil empire” mantra when standing in Red Square in 1988: “I was talking about another time, another era.” Most of that heavy lifting was done by the two foreign ministers: George Shultz – one of the ablest US secretaries of state of the 20th century – and his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze.

Operating mostly out of the limelight and supported by capable back-up staff, these two men built their own trusting relationship and worked out agreements that stuck. Shevardnadze joked that they “lost count somewhere around 35 or 37 meetings”. Is Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, in for the long term? Has the now emasculated state department got the expertise to support him? And whom will they deal with in the shadowlands of Pyongyang? Don’t hold your breath about peace for our time. 


Another time, another era: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in conversation during their impromptu walk in Red Square, 31 May 1988

Why has Trump privileged symbolism over substance? To answer this, we have to remember that summitry is about domestic policy as much as foreign. Each leader always has one eye on his or her audience at home. Nixon’s historic visits to Beijing and then Moscow in February and May of 1972 were all choreographed to ensure maximum exposure on the three main TV networks – ABC, CBS and NBC. They were also intended to shore up Nixon’s position ahead of the November presidential election, at a time when he had still not redeemed his 1968 pledge to extricate the US from Vietnam. Similarly, Trump is mindful of the midterm elections this November, which will determine his freedom of manoeuvre for the rest of this presidential term. Maybe some celebrity TV in Singapore will boost his ratings at home?

Likewise, there was a calculated meltdown in Quebec. The ill-temper of that G7 summit – the weekend before Trump travelled on to meet Kim – was caused by rows about the new US tariffs, and totally different to the amiability of Singapore. But the symbolism was equally calculated to appeal to the home crowd in the US, especially on the populist right.

And, for all the hype about Singapore, Quebec may prove just as revealing about Trump’s diplomacy. The US president arrived late, left early, and then repudiated the communiqué that all the G7 leaders had painfully crafted together. Trump and his entourage turned with particular venom on their host, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who criticised Trump’s protectionism in a final press conference.

Trump’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, told Fox News that “there’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door”. He added: “Those are my words, but they’re the sentiment that was on Air Force One.”

Amid Canadian outrage Navarro said his words were a “mistake”, but another presidential aide, Larry Kudlow, virtually conceded that Quebec had been used as warm-up for the big show in Singapore. He told CNN that Trump was “not going to let a Canadian prime minister push him around” ahead of the summit with Kim. “He is not going to permit any show of weakness on the trip to negotiate with North Korea.”

Consider also, with this in mind, that now celebrated photograph of the G7 leaders. Angela Merkel in the centre, leaning over the table, trying to persuade Trump, who sits impassively, arms crossed, a sardonic half-smile on his lips. Of course, that image was captured by an official German photographer, so it naturally shows Merkel in an assertive position. Trump has since said that the discussion was amiable and the picture “innocent”. But it’s that image, not his words, which will register in heartland America: Trump refusing to be bullied by all those European free-riders.

The backstory of Quebec also matters. Shaking hands with Kim, Trump was on his best behaviour. There were no attempts to yank the other leader off balance or into his personal space – as he often tried in the early months of his presidency. Trudeau, in February 2017, was one of the few to resist that ploy, by pre-emptively leaning in to Trump and gripping his shoulder, while Trump and Emmanuel Macron have an ongoing battle to white-knuckle each other.

Trump can forgive Macron, perhaps because he yearns to review his own Bastille Day-style parade of military hardware along Pennsylvania Avenue. But to red-blooded Americans who love to look down on their northern neighbour, a “Canuck” premier cannot be allowed to upstage the American president. What’s more, as the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan enjoyed observing, Trudeau is also, “younger and much more handsome. Ageing alpha males don’t usually like that.”

Nor do alpha males like institutional summitry of the sort that has evolved since the Cold War. Those large plenary meetings of world leaders – G7, Nato, the European Council – are often useful for those who want to network on the margins, quietly teasing out problems away from prying cameras and microphones. But Trump craves the limelight. He loves the drama of a one-on-one that satisfies his self-image as the Dealmaker. By contrast, he was visibly unhappy at the G7 in Sicily in May 2017, apparently sulking rather than chatting with fellow leaders. This year’s G7 was even worse.

At root, Trump seems fundamentally alienated from most of the West’s international institutions. Here, perhaps, is the deepest significance of Quebec. At last year’s Nato summit, he pointedly avoided making any commitment to Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty – the alliance’s bedrock commitment to collective security. He has openly welcomed the vote for Brexit, not concealing his dislike of the European Union.

What’s more – after months in which Washington’s revolving door never stop-ped whirling as top administration officials came and went – Trump’s inner circle now reflects his own assertive nationalism, topped by Pompeo at the state department and John Bolton as national security adviser. On the economic side, Navarro is an unabashed mercantilist, and is wary of foreign trade lest it undermine national security. All are proud advocates of “America First”.

To grasp what this signifies, we have to go back into US history. Although used in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson when trying to keep the US neutral, that slogan is particularly rooted in the 1930s, when America turned its back on the world depression and Europe’s “gathering storm”, disenchanted with the internationalism that Wilson had espoused after entering the war in 1917. In 1939-41, the “America First” movement led the fight against US entry into the Second World War. Although populated by many crypto-fascists, its core was a heartland ideology of US self-sufficiency.

The fall of France in 1940 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 jolted Americans out of that mood. And the great interpreter of the new internationalism was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who sought to “educate” his countrymen that the age of airpower meant that the Atlantic no longer conferred immunity from the perils of the “Old World” and to persuade them that Nazism would become a global contagion if not utterly suppressed.

For a generation of North American and western European leaders, who had experienced two world wars and wanted to prevent a third (and probably last), the 1940s were a uniquely creative moment. Indeed Dean Acheson, US secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, entitled his memoirs Present at the Creation; its opening paragraph describes his own personal struggle in 1939-40 against the America First Committee. Acheson and his ilk were determined to shape a viable peace after the 20th century’s “Thirty Years’ War” from 1914 to 1945. To move beyond the era of authoritarian leaders, militarised states and protectionist trading blocs – whose competition escalated into war – they helped create a series of new international institutions in the decade or so after 1945.

The United Nations; the International Monetary Fund; the World Bank; the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the North Atlantic Treaty; the European Economic Community – these institutions were sustained by two generations of US policymakers, internationalist in philosophy and Atlanticist by inclination. But they are now under threat from Trump’s American nationalism.

The subtext of the new “America First” movement may not be “Let the world go to hell”, but one can sense the direction of traffic. Equally worrying, some Trumpist criticisms seem justified. Many of these mid 20th century institutions are in desperate need of reinvention, of new vision and new structures.

Since the 1990s, both the EU and Nato have expanded their membership – mostly to draw the former Soviet bloc into the Western orbit – but they have signally failed to reform their operations. Above all, there is an urgent need for effective leadership from those who believe that international relations are not a zero-sum game, governed by the assumption that I can only win if you lose. Such internationalist leadership is in short supply. In western Europe, Macron is the most plausible candidate, although he also has his own quasi-Gaullist agenda.

Angela Merkel is a fading star, weary now after more than a dozen years in office in Germany and undermined by six months of coalition-building following the federal elections of September 2017, in which the far right Alternative für Deutschland became the official opposition in the Bundestag. Jean-Claude Juncker and the Brussels commission are not the most inspiring advertisement for the European ideal. And as for Theresa May… 

As the Cold War recedes into history, the years 1989-91 – despite the demise of the Soviet bloc, the unification of Germany and the collapse of the USSR – seems less of a break with the past than was once believed.

In the era of Trump and Brexit, we seem to be finally entering the twilight of the postwar period, which had dawned with such anguished hope after 1945. Will the new nationalism now hold sway? Or will there emerge a new generation of internationalist leaders – women and men who believe that nations must live together, lest they die together? A generation who sense that, in their own time, they are present at the creation, and who will rise to that challenge.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at Cambridge University and author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the Twentieth Century” 

This article appears in the 22 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis