Why Trump’s Personal Diplomacy Doesn’t Work
For better or for worse (usually worse) President Donald Trump likes to engage in personal diplomacy. This has led to outcries from many in the foreign policy establishment and accusations that Trump has a soft spot for authoritarians and may be an aspiring one himself. That’s a stretch, but Trump’s personal diplomacy still has limits that the President won’t acknowledge.
Trump’s supporters sometimes like to portray the his foreign policy wheeling and dealing as if he is playing some master game of 612-dimensional chess and this is just part of his master deal making. This requires us to assume that Trump is some sort of geopolitical genius, a master puppeteer who will solve the Russian or North Korean enigmas, but of course that’s just silly.
As Trump meets with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at the DMZ, Trump’s personal diplomacy is again in the headlines. There was no purpose to the DMZ excursion except for a photo op. Trump has relied on personal diplomacy because he feelings that if he and whoever he is talking to (Vladimir Putin and Kim in particular) trust and like each other, they may be able to come to a grand bargain, at the very least, as long as we are talking, at least we are fighting. Trump’s critics like the paint Iran as a dichotomy between Obama-era deal making and war, but Trump is not immune to this dichotomy, using it himself on North Korea.
Some Trump critics say Trump’s personal diplomacy is a moral disgrace and to an extent they are not wrong. The President of the United States should not be repeating Vladimir Putin’s talking points or have a bromance with the North Korean tyrant, but Trump comes back with “We’ve tried their way and it didn’t work, so why not try something different?”
So what’s wrong with trying to mend ties with Russia or talking with Kim?
One gets the sense that Trump does not know what he wants nor does he know what the man across the table wants. He wants better relations with Moscow, whatever that means. Fortunately on Russia, Trump’s policies have been far better than his rhetoric. His bromance with Kim is far more problematic.
Trump likes to think of himself as a pragmatic deal maker, he also likes people who are willing to inflate his ego. These are two easy weaknesses for North Korea to take advantage of. Trump is susceptible to double dealing, because he is too focused on the personal relationship he has with Kim. Nothing has changed about North Korean behavior, but Trump continues to insist all is going well. Any deal would almost certainly require the U.S. (and the rest of the world, including the United Nations Security Council) to recognize North Korea as a legitimate nuclear state. As such, North Korea needs a deal far more than the United States and South Korea in order to legitimize itself and win sanction relief. The only thing the U.S. and South Korea would win is an easing of relations. How long these relaxed relations would last is anyone’s guess.
Trump also thinks that everyone else is like him. He has tried to sell Kim on the economic benefits that North Korea could reap if they would just give up their nukes. Obviously, Kim does not care about luxury hotels, Kim cares about Kim and Kim’s hold on power.
This is a mistaken view of the purpose of diplomacy. It is not just the absence of war. These grand summits and attempted deals with the nation’s adversaries are supposed to be ways to advance the national interest and sometimes that means conceding certain things to gain concessions back, but when the U.S. holds all the cards these sort of photo ops at the DMZ do nothing to advance the national interest, which is purpose of an “America First” foreign policy.