Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un meet a test case for personalised diplomacy pushing decision-making in foreign policy

The images from the historic summit between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have begun to flood social media timelines. The full details of what went on behind closed doors between the two leaders are still awaited.

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

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

But as the leader of one the world's oldest and largest democracies meets the infamous authoritarian, the outcome is anyone's guess. The meeting has, however, served to underline two things: It has provided a degree of legitimacy to the North Korean regime, that the supreme leader of North Korea is meeting the president of the United States, a global superpower, is certain to grant domestic and international political legitimacy to Kim Jong-un's regime.

Two, the remarkable rapprochement between the two leaders, within a year of threatening each other with missile attacks, has served to underline the importance of personalities in international relations. After decades of hostile relations, the US president has managed to pull off a remarkable feat. The turnaround in ties can largely be attributed to how Trump has traversed his equation with Kim.

Personalities in foreign policy making are largely understudied and undervalued. An individual decision-maker usually interacts with the constraints of the international system, and domestic political structures to make the final choices. While the pushes and pulls over the national and international environments are important variables to decision-making, it ultimately boils down to individual personalities on when, how and what decisions are finally taken. In case of the Trump-Kim relationship, the personality of Trump had a significant role to play in the run-up to the summit.

Trump has maintained a transactional, profit-seeking outlook on issues of foreign policy. This was made evident from his decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, triggering a potential trade war with China, his constant criticism of US allies for 'not doing enough', his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his refusal to endorse the G7 statement.

His America-first policy has laid great emphasis on non-intervention, increasing trade protectionism, bringing back jobs to America and reducing the influx of migrants and refugees to the American mainland. America-first is ideologically driven by the president's old school conservatism coupled with his business acumen in “maximising his options”.

A “flexibility with choices” has also been reiterated by the president as his preferred modus operandi on numerous occasions. Trump is also well known for his boastful style with a flair for populist promises, self-endorsement, and a search for moments that can make him look heroic in the international arena. Most of Trump's policies, therefore, bear a hallmark of his personal qualities. The yin and yang of his equation with Kim read somewhat similar.

Within a year, Trump has gone on from threatening Kim with “fire and fury” to a one-to-one meeting in Singapore which culminated with the signing of an agreement. The military options available to the Trump regime were limited from the very beginning. After threats were issued from both sides, the paradox of nuclear weapons ensured that the military threats fizzled out quickly.

This, coupled with South Korea's decision to better ties with the North, might have pushed Trump to look for a rapprochement that could bring him back to the limelight. It becomes pertinent to point out that Trump was the first to take credit for the end of the seven-decade war in the Korean Peninsula, announced earlier this year after the historic meeting between the leaders of the North and South.

This is in line with Trump's desire for grand gestures that would make him stand out. This personal quality of Trump, along with his value-for-money approach is also largely responsible for the other numerous U-turns that the American foreign policy has witnessed.

His equation with North Korea is guided by his instincts of seeking a solution to the long-standing crisis: Either militarily or diplomatically, that can serve to alter the course of US-North Korea relations and etch his name in US history.

The key to understanding Trump's foreign policy decisions, therefore, lies in figuring out the probability of a given set of outcomes depending on what they can do for his personal reputation. Trump may be an important test case in analysing what personalities can do for foreign policy decision-making given how individualistic and personalised diplomacy is being used by leaders at the very top to create some more space for policymaking.


Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 16:24 PM

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