Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un summit in Singapore: What's the stuffing inside US-North Korea negotiation pie?

New York: “I think within the first minute, I’ll know….just my touch, my feel, that’s what I do.”

With a steady stream of weapons-grade persuasion like this, US president Donald Trump has already won ‘bigly’ before his historic sit-down with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

 Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un summit in Singapore: Whats the stuffing inside US-North Korea negotiation pie?

Supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump. Reuters

If Trump says he’ll know in the "first minute", make that the first hour of the US-North Korea summit when there’s nobody else in the room except Trump, Kim Jong-un and two translators. In Round One, expect the two leaders sold out on bumper sticker subtelty to crow and preen for just forcing each other to the table.

For those watching the spectacle unfold in Singapore and wondering how some lucky jester with a blonde mop got so far, they’re stilling missing the perceptual shift that came with Trump’s victory lap.

From the game changing 2016 victory till the Singapore summit and beyond, the Trump masterclass, at its core, has been about convincing people (voters) that something (that he's talking about) is important. It’s mostly been about making a claim that is directionally accurate and ending the story with one mighty exaggeration, so people focus on how wrong it is and remember the issue. Results can wait.

Without sweating the small stuff, Trump has lobbed a flaming match into many tinderboxes- immigration, trade, relations with allies, Russia, America’s own demographic shifts and so on. Known to scrawl little notes and keywords he clutches onto at key meetings, the US president’s closure has little to do with policy details and everything to do with the emotional state of his base back home.

While swooning anchors, harassed cameramen and the world’s leading foreign policy pundits scratching their heads about the historic Trump-Kim meeting pick Trump’s one liners to the bone, the meeting itself has gone from being about nukes to the political equivalent of a first date.

And, nobody, except Donald Trump, knows what the negotiation pie is.

Trump’s positions have always given him (and America) plenty of room to negotiate back to his side of the middle.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying America wants “complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament” of North Korea is the political equivalent of basketball’s playmaker: use the flanks, keep the action awfully busy and noisy while Trump scores.

Negotiation killer teams typically visualise what’s at stake via the image of a pie. What Pompeo says is at stake and what Trump will say need not match - because there’s no pie yet. Just like the summit which “got cancelled” actually never got cancelled - it came close to what negotiation tacticians call a “nibble”: where you haggle about the small stuff around the big stuff.

In complex discussions, the naive construct of 'all cards on the table' and 'no bluffing' goes out the window. You bet Donald Trump, armed with a Wharton MBA and real estate smarts, has known this only too well and for very long.

The pie is how much more two parties can achieve by working together than they can get if they don't reach an agreement (or don’t meet at all).

There’s a formula for it too: The pie = Net benefit from working together – (Trump’s net benefit on his own + North Korea’s net benefit on its own). Net benefit here is defined as what’s left after all the costs both tangible and vague.

This is rudimentary math but the takeaways are many.

No deal is better than a bad deal defined as one where the outcome is worse than both parties working on their own. It’s that line in the sand from where you walk away if it’s no good.

Right now, everyone’s taking jabs at what might transpire between Trump and Kim Jong-un but all of that is from the outside in. And it works perfectly for the US president’s signature style.

No matter what the broad framework of the deal, the losers will be those obscured by the hoopla - the US-led security architecture that has brought decades of stability to Asia.

Trump has already said this is a “process” towards where the US wants to take its engagement with North Korea.

In stark contrast to the flashing cameras and media circus, Trump is in no hurry to come away with a bright red gift box all tied with a gold bow.

Facing midterm elections, the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un is great optics and even better politics for the US president. Trump turns 74 this week, he has begun relishing the prospect of a 2020 campaign. The movement away from ‘give North Korea a bloody nose’ to actually sitting down with Kim Jong-un has been met with wide applause from Americans, according to a Pew Research Center poll - one of Trump’s best numbers on any poll so far.

“For complete denuclearisation, North Korea will have to cease to exist,” former CIA director general Michael Hayden told news networks on Monday.

That sounds just about right and Trump’s voters in America “couldn’t care less”, Steve Kreiger, a retired Wall Street banker in New Jersey told Firstpost. “I’m sick and tired of this circus. Why don’t they just get stuff right in America first?”, Kreiger said while dropping off his grandson to school Monday morning.

Trump knows he can’t please people like say Kreiger or those who want say, Policy X on North Korea or the opposers of Policy X all at one time. Nobody can, really. Going simply by what he’s done so far on every policy issue of outsize importance, Trump will likely deliver a straight A on 'strategic ambiguity'. What’s that again?

Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comic strip turned political guru after he predicted the Trump win, explains it like this: “…a deliberate choice of words that allows people to read into your message whatever they want to hear. Or to put it another way, the message intentionally leaves out any part that would be objectionable to anyone. People fill in the gaps with their imagination and their imagination can be more persuasive than anything you say”.

That fits with Trump's "I'll know in the first minute" soundbite. There's no pie (yet), (maybe) he's in no hurry to carve out one and he's already done more in terms of political optics than Obama. The human quote machine has gone from calling Kim "Little Rocket Man" to actually meeting him. That's memorable, who remembers the rest anyway?

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 03:55:01 IST

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