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Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un meet: US president's sexy iconoclasm has made China emerge as biggest beneficiary

The reactionary impulses against Washington consensus and the elite stranglehold on narrative that swept US president Donald Trump to victory are slowly making their presence felt by raising doubts over some fundamental assumptions about American politics and foreign policy. For instance, there are more takers now for Trump's unconventional style. Many are willing to buy the notion that his transactional, protocol-busting maneuvers may achieve what silk-tied staid conventions cannot, and that mixing morality and diplomacy is no longer valid in the new, multipolar world order.

Two well-argued articles, one by Bilahari Kausikan in The Washington Post and another by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra in Business Standard, see the meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a game-changing, pivotal event. That may yet be the case. Trump may succeed in influencing a duplicitous, dictatorial regime in complying with the letter and spirit of declarations that it has historically failed to do. He may bring peace (if not denuclearisation) to the Peninsula.

File images of US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Reuters

File images of US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Reuters

Instead of logic and verification, however, we would have to enter the woolly regions of faith and prophecy. As Evan Osnos writes in The New Yorker, "Most apropos in this case is George W Bush’s first official trip to Europe as president, when he was asked if he trusted Vladimir Putin, and famously replied, 'I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy: I was able to get a sense of his soul.' Condoleezza Rice later lamented that response, writing, 'We were never able to escape the perception that the President had naïvely trusted Putin and then been betrayed.'

What do we make of Trump's faith in Kim? The summit threw up two interesting features.

First, the US president appears convinced that the 34-year-old dictator will work towards "complete denuclearisation". On being asked how can he be sure about the dictator giving up his nuclear arsenal, Trump told reporters, "When he lands, which is shortly, I think he will start that process right away. I do. I do… I think he wants to get it done. I really feel that very strongly."

Elsewhere during the presser, he said: "It’s a very great moment in the history of the world. Chairman Kim is on his way back to North Korea and I know for a fact that as soon as he arrives he will start a process that will make a lot of people very happy and very safe."

Going by the text of the joint declaration and Trump's comments during the news conference, it seems the US president is placing bottomless confidence in Kim, despite a thin promise of intent and dubious history.

As The Economist writes, "If anything the document is even woollier than the statement signed by Mr Kim and Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, after their first meeting on 27 April, during which the two Korean leaders committed themselves to achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula. There is nothing in the latest screed that is specific enough to be enforceable. The hard work of turning rhetoric into substance will be left to others."

Second, frequently during his interaction with the media, Trump showered fulsome praise on the dynastic head of a brutally repressive regime, calling him "talented", "smart", "very good negotiator", "a patriot", how he expected to have a "terrific relationship" with Kim and how "honoured" he was to meet him.

These two traits of 'unalloyed trust' and 'effusive rhetoric' are not idiosyncrasies. In fact, these are closest to what we may call Trumpian doctrines in foreign policy. Trump evidently believes that taking a leader for his word (even at the very first meeting with the head of an adversarial state) will help develop and sow trust in a personal relationship, which could form the basis of a 'friendship' that cuts through conventions and achieves quick results. This is allied to his self-assessment that he can do stuff that others cannot.

As he said at the presser: "I don’t think they (North Koreans) have ever had the confidence in a president they have right now for getting things done and ability to get things done." And to a question on what makes this joint declaration different from those in the past: "You have a different administration and different president and different secretary of state. You have people that are, you know, it is very important to them. And we get it done."

Trump's high self-worth goes with his belief that flattery and praise will help achieve results that hard-nosed negotiation may not. This stems from a vainglorious nature that renders the US president vulnerable to flattery. Trump enjoys being talked up and flattered and seems to believe that this rhetorical tool will help him cut a better deal. As he told reporters: "My whole life has been deals. I have done great at it. That’s what I do. I know when somebody wants to deal and I know when somebody doesn’t."

Notwithstanding Trump's sexy iconoclasm, there is a reason why protocol, established tradition and rules are an important part of diplomacy. These mechanisms are more useful than rhetorical tools in achieving foreign policy goals because they allow for codification and implementation of time-tested rules that help leaders see the bigger picture.

In his haste to earn a place in history, Trump may have committed a series of rather costly errors, the effect of which is likely to become clearer over a period of time.

The first of these errors is a stunning declaration of suspending war exercises with South Korea that, going by reactions emerging out of Seoul, was decided upon unilaterally without taking a key treaty ally into confidence. According to The Associated Press, Seoul's defence ministry was caught off guard and its military seemed equally surprised.

"At this current point, there is a need to discern the exact meaning and intent of president Trump's comments," the agency quoted Korean defence ministry as saying while US forces in South Korea said it has "received no updated guidance on the execution or cessation of training exercises and will continue to… maintain the current posture until it receives an updated guidance from the Department of Defense or the Indo-Pacific Command."

But Trump's cut goes deeper. He used terms such as "too expensive" and "provocative" while suspending the decades-old military drills that defined US presence in the Korean Peninsula, were an important part of East Asian security infrastructure, and formed a key feature of US alliance with South Korea since 1950 when the North launched an attack to start the Korean War. What makes matters worse was that this crucial concession was backed by no quid pro quo except Kim's expression of intent.

Japanese defence minister told reporters on Wednesday that US military's presence in South Korea and joint military exercises were "vital" for East Asian security."We would like to seek an understanding of this between Japan, the US and South Korea," he was quoted as saying by Reuters.

This serves to destroy US credibility and shows it up as an unreliable ally, forcing small and middle powers to either embark on a risky strategy of playing off one big player against the other or veering towards the Middle Kingdom, paving the way for Chinese hegemony in Asia. In fact, Beijing would be delighted with the outcome of the summit because Kim has got Trump to do what it has long sought: Reduce US presence on the Korean Peninsula.

As Ryan Hass, David M Rubenstein Fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies is quoted as saying in a Brookings report, "China would like to see a reduction in military forces in Northeast Asia and a widening of the gap between the United States and its allies and partners. Beijing is now on track to achieve these objectives at little cost."

Additionally, Trump has inadvertently played into China's hands by also hinting at withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. Once again, his focus is tragically myopic. "At some point I have to be honest. I used to say this during my campaign as you know better than most. I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home. We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea. I would like to be able to bring them back home. That’s not part of the equation. At some point, I hope it would be. We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money."

While focusing on small and immediate gains in his America First policy, Trump is turning the US into America Alone, and China would be more than ready to fill that gap. Within a space of 24 hours, Chinese posture around the summit has transformed from nervousness to quiet confidence because Trump is doing all the heavy lifting for Xi Jinping in helping China achieve its strategic goals in Asia.

It has already started building tacit pressure on the US to follow up its suspension of war games with pulling out of troops from Seoul. Tuesday's editorial in Communist Party-controlled Global Times writes, "With a cooling down of military activities, less US military participation, and possibly an eventual US troop withdrawal, the peninsula will completely walk out of the shadow of the Cold War. If political process moves toward this direction on the peninsula, the whole region will benefit."

Beijing is aware that in the absence of any deadlines or redlines in the joint declaration, US will have to depend on China in a big way to ensure that Kim honours his commitment to "completely denuclearise Korean Peninsula" because even the toughest of UN sanctions will gather teeth only if China implements them. At this moment, Beijing is canvassing for just the opposite. It verily seems that Trump has somehow managed to hand all his levers of negotiation to China, making Xi the biggest beneficiary of the historic summit.


Updated Date: Jun 13, 2018 20:03 PM

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