Trump, Kim, and the Three P’s of Summit Diplomacy


The next summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been set for the end of February in Vietnam. With the June 2016 Singapore Summit having yielded little more than avoiding breakdown, what will it take to achieve a real breakthrough?

This article examines two cases in which, as I show in my recent book, summitry did achieve major breakthroughs between adversaries: the U.S.-China opening in the early 1970s and the lead-up to the end of the Cold War in the mid-to-late 1980s. I find that three factors are key: establishing common policy ground, forging trusting and respectful personal relationships, and managing leaders’ respective domestic politics. These “three P’s,” other differences among the cases notwithstanding, provide a strategic framework crucial to successful summit diplomacy. While neither Trump’s nor Kim’s record inspires much confidence that these lessons will be drawn, it’d be in their interest – and the world’s – to do so.

Common Policy Ground

The main obstacle to finding common policy ground in Trump’s case is that his diplomatic style is to focus far more on the headlines than the details. We saw this in May 2017, when he took his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. There, the president touted $110 billion in arms sales but the Saudis only followed through on less than $4 billion. So too at the July 2018 Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Trump crowed that “never has anyone, any country been closer than we are” while Putin got away without having to make any commitment on Ukraine. And sure enough, in Singapore Trump made his “greatest ever” and “never before” claims about the summit declaration of “complete denuclearization,” while after the summit Kim got to define the sequencing (only operating on a step-by-step basis tied to sanctions lifting and other benefits along the way) and scope (not just North Korea’s own arsenal, but also inclusive of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” extended deterrence guarantee to South Korea and Japan, as affirmed as recently as 2017).

No surprise, then, that within a few months of the Singapore summit the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed “grave concern” about continued North Korean uranium enrichment and other nuclear weapons activity. Press and think tank reports revealed continued development of ballistic missile capacity. The intelligence community’s threat assessment presented to Congress last week by Trump’s own appointees was strikingly unequivocal in assessing that North Korea “will seek to retain its W.M.D. capability and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.” Trump’s angry “Wrong!” tweet did little to undermine the validity of the intel chief’s pronouncement.

Trump does have a point about some progress having been made – “no testing, getting remains [American soldiers killed in the Korean War], hostages returned.” But for forging the common ground needed for a real breakthrough, three lessons can be drawn from the U.S.-China opening and the end of the Cold War.

The first lesson is the need for intensive diplomatic work prior to the summit. The February 1972 summit between President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedog was largely the political validation of the negotiations between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai. In their initial July 1971 secret talks, Kissinger and Zhou held 17 hours of meetings over two days, some with aides but much of it one-on-one (with translators for both sides). The follow-up October meetings lasted four days, with 10 sessions totaling 23 hours and 40 minutes. The U.S.-Soviet talks that supported the four summits between President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, while involving a broader range of officials, were no less crucial in working through key issues and teeing up agreements for the leaders. Yet with the Trump-Kim summit less than a month away, and working-level meetings more sporadic than systematic, there is cause for concern.

A second lesson is that compromises will need to be made. The United States settled for some Chinese cooperation on Vietnam, but less than it initially sought. China got “one China” recognition, but not immediate severing of U.S. relations with Taiwan or scrapping of the mutual defense treaty. Reagan and Gorbachev compromised on a host of issues including arms control, the Iran-Iraq war, Central America, and Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. So too will compromises be needed on linking economic and other benefits to denuclearization.

On the one hand, given North Korea’s track record, it’s only prudent to be cautious about offering concessions up-front. On the other, it’s entirely reasonable for North Korea to reject carrots being proffered only at the end of the negotiating process, especially given the 1990s negotiations when the North shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and reprocessing facility as promised, but the United States failed to follow through on commitments in a timely fashion, including lifting sanctions. Indeed, as Nicholas Miller shows, a number of countries have questioned the credibility of U.S. assurances that sanctions will not be imposed if they comply with U.S. nonproliferation demands.

Third, a transactional approach of confining negotiations just to the nuclear issues won’t work. Contrary to conventional wisdom that there can only be a new relationship if specific issues are resolved first, those very issues can become more resolvable, the transactions more open to compromise, if the overall relationship begins to be transformed. “Only the settlement of fundamental questions first,” as Zhou put it during his talks with Kissinger, “can lead to the settlement of other questions.” Thus the 1972 Shanghai Communique affirmed that the United States and China would “conduct their relations on the principles of respect…without resorting to the use of force” in a way that would “broaden the understanding between the two peoples.” The Gorbachev-Reagan statement at the 1987 Washington summit that “differences are not insurmountable obstacles to progress in areas of mutual interest” conveys this same sense of the tranformational being crucial to the transactional and the agreements reached on issues such as those noted above.

In similar ways the nuclear issue cannot be transactionally isolated from the broader U.S.-North Korean relationship. As long as the threat of attempted regime change remains, Kim will see a need for retaining nuclear weapons as an insurance policy. What about Libya, Kim has reportedly asked, where in 2003 Muammar al-Qaddafi made a deal with the United States giving up his programs for nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction programs – only to be overthrown and killed eight years later? Or what about Iran, Kim no doubt wonders, after having watched Trump renege on the 2015 nuclear deal despite Iran having largely abided by the agreement’s terms? And while Trump may think lashing out at longtime allies makes him look strong, Kim may well be asking: If this is how he treats close friends and tramples long-standing commitments, how meaningful would any common policy ground found between us be?

Personal Trust and Respect

The personal trust and respect Kissinger and Zhou developed was crucial to their statesmanship success. In an interview for my book, Kissinger recounted how, at their very first encounter, he immediately offered a handshake. This harked back to the 1955 Geneva conference partitioning Vietnam, at which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles shook hands with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov but refused to do so with Zhou. That was “unforgivable,” Kissinger affirmed. From there, they engaged more deeply and authentically than stilted talking-points exchanges. Nixon and Mao had their own playful exchange in which Mao said “I ‘voted’ for you . . . I ‘like’ rightists,” and Nixon teased, “Chiang Kai-shek calls the Chairman a bandit. What does the Chairman call Chiang Kai-shek?”

The Reagan-Gorbachev personal relationship had a warmth that got them through disagreements. At their first summit, Gorbachev later wrote in his memoirs, “I realized . . . that Ronald Reagan too was a man you could do business with.” In his memoirs, Reagan speaks to “something very close to a friendship” with Gorbachev. He added, “We could – and did – debate from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. But there was a chemistry that kept our conversations on a man-to-man basis, without hate or hostility.”

Even though Kim has not delivered much, Trump keeps claiming “we fell in love” and talking about those “beautiful letters.” But while professions of love are better than not, Trump’s tend not to run deep or last long. Just ask French President Emmanuel Macron, who couldn’t keep the bromance up. If Kim is less deferential than he was at Singapore, where he held fast for that 13-second handshake, he may risk being treated like poor Montenegran Prime Minister Dusko Markovic at the 2017 NATO summit getting unceremoniously shoved out of the way.

For his part, while Kim hasn’t reverted to his pre-Singapore overt threats of a “sea of fire” or striking the United States with a “nuclear sword of justice,” his New Year’s message did make a veiled threat that “if the U.S. does not keep its promises” and continues “with sanctions and pressure…then we, too, have no choice but to seek a new path for our country’s sovereignty.” Moreover, Kim is now more experienced on the international stage, having had his own three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and four meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, including a highly feted one in Beijing last month.

Managing Domestic Politics

While vested domestic interests have complicated nuclear weapons reductions in many other states, the reverence in which Kim is held – as Professor Bridget Coggins puts it, his “status is regarded as god-like within the North Korean system” – and his dictatorial grip on his isolated people seem likely to keep his internal politics well within his control.

On the U.S. side, we sometimes forget how intensely the China lobby opposed the U.S.-China opening. Making a deal with Red China, uber-conservative columnist William Buckley excoriated, was as “if Sir Hartley Shawcross had suddenly risen form the prosecutor’s stand at Nuremberg and descended to embrace Goering and Goebbels …begging them to join him in making a better world.” Nixon’s right-wing, anti-communist credentials helped him manage these politics, giving rise to the generic “Nixon-goes-to-China” formulation for how hawkish leaders can pursue peace.

Reagan, too, had hawks such as Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle within his own administration calling his approach “delusional.” Even at the State Department, as Secretary of State George Shultz reflected amidst his own efforts to support Reagan, “the naysayers were hard at work.” But Reagan-goes-to-Moscow drew on both the president’s longstanding anti-communist blue-bloodedness and the political skills of the “great communicator.”

I am less confident than I was last year in the run-up to Singapore that even if solid common ground is worked out that Trump would be able to pull off a Nixon-goes-to-China or Reagan-style negotiation. The latest flap with the intelligence community, while hardly the first, may significantly undermine confidence in Trump’s strategic judgment. Especially given how they have rationalized away Trump’s Russia problems, Republican conservatives risk losing any claim to hawkishness if they rubber-stamp whatever deal Trump strikes. And North Korea has given Democrats an easy issue on which to buttress their national security toughness.

Moreover, Trump is politically weaker overall than he was in June 2018. While short of a dominant trend, Republicans are increasingly calculating that their own political self-interests are better served by separating from Trump than standing behind him, including on issues like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the value of NATO, and the government shutdown. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, seen by some as having made the Senate an annex of the White House, introduced a bill rebuking Trump on the Syria and Afghanistan troop pullouts. The 2018 midterm elections gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives, and “satin and steel” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s outmaneuvering of Trump – while not guaranteeing who wins the next battle – has punctured perceptions of his political savvy.

Breakdown If Not Breakthrough?

At Singapore, given how volatile the situation had become, avoiding breakdown may have been enough. This time, it may not be. Expectations have been reset. Diplomatic maneuverings have changed the baseline. The nuclear threat persists. I came, we met, it was incredible, better than anyone ever before – the standard Trump tropes – won’t be sufficient. And if this summit doesn’t go well, given Trump’s proclivity to revert to attack mode, “little rocket man” insults and “fire and fury” threats may not be far behind.

While full rapprochement is unrealistic, breakthrough is needed. Getting the policy right, the personal to click, and the politics manageable is a tall order. It was for Kissinger and Zhou, Nixon and Mao, and Reagan andGorbachev, yet they achieved breakthroughs on issues no less (arguably even more) difficult. Comparable statesmanship needs to be exercised again if crucial progress is to be made – and renewed risk of war averted.


Bruce Jentleson is a professor at Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and also Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Co-Director of Bridging the Gap. His most recent book is The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from 20th Century Statesmanship (W.W. Norton, 2018). He has served in a number of policy and political positions, most recently as Senior Advisor to the State Department Policy Planning Director.

 Image: U.S. State Department