Nixon Did It. Why Not Trump? Crib Notes for a Presidential Summit
SINGAPORE — In 1972, while stopping in Hawaii en route to Beijing, President Richard M. Nixon jotted a few notes to himself on a yellow pad before his historic encounter with Mao Zedong, the revolutionary founder of the People’s Republic of China.Posted — Updated
SINGAPORE — In 1972, while stopping in Hawaii en route to Beijing, President Richard M. Nixon jotted a few notes to himself on a yellow pad before his historic encounter with Mao Zedong, the revolutionary founder of the People’s Republic of China.
Preparing for a meeting that would change the course of the Cold War, Nixon distilled history, politics and strategy into a handful of bullet points: What did China want? What did the United States want? What did they both want?
President Donald Trump has said he does not need to prepare for his summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. But if Trump or an adviser were to make a similar set of notes, what might they say?
Nixon answered this question for China in three concise answers: Build up their world credentials. Taiwan. Get the U.S. out of Asia.
Trump might also reduce North Korea’s concerns to three points:
Kim’s top priority is the security of his nation and the survival of the totalitarian regime that he inherited from his father and grandfather. He has said this is why he needs a nuclear arsenal — to deter the United States from attacking North Korea and attempting to overthrow him, as some in Washington have advocated.
But he has also committed to denuclearization, as long as the North can be guaranteed of its security. That is one reason a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War is under discussion. It could include assurances from both China and the United States and might lead eventually to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.
If Mao was interested in China’s “world credentials,” Kim may be more interested in building up his reputation at home.
Being treated as an equal by Trump confers prestige on Kim that he can use to strengthen his grip on power.
Recognition as a nuclear state and acceptance in the international community would also bolster his position and allow him to boast of an achievement that eluded his father and grandfather. It is also a reason he may be reluctant to give up the weapons.
Kim has long called for the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic growth, but he abruptly announced in April that he was adopting a “new strategic line” that focuses on rebuilding the economy.
He has already allowed some market forces to take hold, but there is a limit to the progress North Korea can make while isolated by international sanctions.
“This is our biggest point of leverage,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a director and senior fellow at the New America research group who has been involved in unofficial talks with North Korea.
Nixon’s wish list from China included both immediate and long-term items — help ending the Vietnam War, restraining the spread of communism in Asia and reducing “the threat of a confrontation by Chinese Super Power.”
Trump’s list for North Korea may be a similar combination of short- and long-term goals:
This is the holy grail. It is critical to the balance of power in the region and global efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. But the vast scope of North Korea’s program — and the fact that it has already tested and built nuclear weapons — means it would be the most challenging case of nuclear disarmament in history.
Kim has committed to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but the phrase means different things in Pyongyang and Washington. The United States wants North Korea to give up its weapons, nuclear material and production facilities on an accelerated timeline under the eye of inspectors, but the North favors a more protracted process, with concessions by the United States up front.
North Korea rattled the region last year with its sixth underground nuclear explosion — of a possible hydrogen bomb — and 24 missile tests, including of a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting all of the United States. It also has a history of provocative military actions, including the shelling of a South Korean island and the suspected sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010.
But Kim said in April that the North no longer needed to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. If Trump persuades him to extend the moratorium, that would ease tensions while also slowing the development of his arsenal.
Trump has shown a disregard for the United States’ traditional alliances around the world, but the United States is bound by treaty to defend both South Korea and Japan. Reducing the threat posed by North Korea would make it less likely for the United States to be drawn into a conflict in Asia.
Japan in particular is worried that even if North Korea gives up its nuclear arsenal and its ICBMs, it would still have shorter-range missiles as well as chemical and biological weapons. “You can say you’ve protected Americans,” said Daniel Sneider, a scholar at Stanford University. “Of course, you’ve left Japanese and Koreans and 80,000 American troops plus their dependents at risk.”
This is where there is room for a deal to emerge. Nixon noted that China and the United States both wanted to reduce the risk of a conflict, and that both favored a more stable Asia and a restraint on the Soviet Union.
Trump might find common ground with Kim in these areas:
Both men have expressed frustration at the lack of progress in previous negotiations and may be interested in a game-changing breakthrough that redefines the relationship between the two nations.
“If you just look at it as, ‘Give up your stuff,’ that framework is why we’ve been banging our head against the wall for so long,” said John Delury, a North Korea scholar at Yonsei University in Seoul. “If we say we need to fundamentally change the relationship, then you have a framework where there can be real progress.”
Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea last year and a North Korean official warned of a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” just a few weeks ago.
But a war would mean devastating casualties, including of U.S. troops in South Korea, and U.S. cities would also be at risk of suffering a nuclear strike because of the North’s recent advances. For Kim, a war would almost certainly result in the end of his rule and the destruction of his country.
Trump and Kim are both looking for political victories that will help them at home.
“The imagery of Kim and Trump holding hands, embracing and declaring an end to the Korean War, is probably something they both individually want,” said Laura Rosenberger, a senior fellow and director of the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy.
North Korea once enjoyed two sponsors, China and the Soviet Union. But China has been its main economic benefactor since the Soviet collapse, accounting for more than 90 percent of foreign trade. In recent years, Beijing has also helped keep the North afloat by blocking or resisting tighter sanctions against it.
There is evidence, though, that suggests Kim is worried about growing too dependent on China.
As the United States and China compete for influence in Asia, any shift by North Korea away from Beijing might work to the United States’ advantage.
Henry Kissinger and other advisers tried to give Nixon advice on how to treat Mao before their summit meeting. In James Mann’s book “About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship With China, From Nixon to Clinton,” he reported that Nixon wrote:
Treat him (as Emperor)
1. Don’t quarrell (sic)2. Don’t praise him (too much)3. Praise the people — art, ancient.4. Praise poems.5. Love of country.
Trump might consider these suggestions:
1. Treat him as a statesman.2. Emphasize mutual respect.3. Listen.4. Praise friendship with Dennis Rodman (and maybe suggest a burger in Singapore?).5. Don’t talk about Libya.
Some have urged Trump to raise North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, which he highlighted during his State of the Union address in January. But few expect him to spend much if any time on the subject.
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.