Trump and Kim: An opportunity for peace or high-stakes ego trip?

Tensions have eased since 2018

Handout/Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with President Donald Trump during their historic summit at the Capella Hotel on June 12, 2018, in Singapore.

President Donald Trump jets off to Vietnam next week for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump seeks to make meaningful progress in denuclearizing North Korea -- a goal no US president has successfully achieved since the North began its nuclear program more than 60 years ago.

Tensions between the US and North Korea have indisputably eased since Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June 2018. Kim has returned the remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War, and he's held off on nuclear and missile tests for more than a year. Despite this, there seems little incentive right now for Kim to completely surrender his nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats contradicted Trump during his congressional testimony last month and said North Korea was "unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities..." Trump wasn't pleased about Coats' testimony, and White House officials have reportedly initiated preliminary discussions about replacing him.

Given the challenges Trump faces, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the broader historical context of presidential summits and question their value. Is meeting with Kim at this stage even worth the time and effort? What approach to diplomacy does this summit embody? Can Trump succeed on the strength of his personality alone?

To help me answer these questions, I turned to Dr. David Reynolds, a historian and professor at Cambridge University, who has written "Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century" and "The Kremlin Letters: Stalin's Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt," among many other books.

"Summits" is certainly a good primer for anyone interested in learning about diplomacy at the highest levels of government, and since that is exactly what we are about to witness next week, I wanted to get the professor's take.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

CNN: In your book, "Summits," you quote John F. Kennedy, who said, "It is far better that we meet at the summit than at the brink." But some critics suggest North Korea hasn't made good on its denuclearization pledge from the first summit to warrant a second one with President Trump. Tensions have undoubtedly been reduced, however. Do you think this summit is a good idea? And if so, what might history suggest we could see result from this one?

David Reynolds: To "meet at the summit" is a diplomatic act, even before any talking starts. That's why leaders of old often met on a shared border, or in a neutral capital -- Geneva and Vienna were favored during the Cold War -- so as to maintain equality of status. It also matters who travels farther. Trump racked up more miles than Kim when they met in Singapore last year, and will do so again for the second summit in Vietnam. In this regard, Kim has gained from Trump's approach to summitry.

To add to that, the White House did not ask for major concessions before giving the North Korean leader the validation of a meeting with the head of the world's leading superpower. Critics argue that courting the maverick North Korean leader, once denigrated by the President as "little rocket man," has built up Kim's status at home and abroad.

Meeting at the summit is also, of course, a political act, with one eye always on the domestic audience. A second Trump-Kim meeting had been bruited for months, but the White House decided to confirm the news during the government shutdown in mid-January, which ended with the President's humiliating climbdown before his questionable national emergency declaration. The whole business severely dented his ratings. And so, like all presidents, Trump hopes that playing the peacemaker abroad will boost his image at home.

CNN: You wrote about the role personality has played in recent summitry, with a particular focus on Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair. Donald Trump likes to fashion himself as a deal-maker and seems enamored by the personal and laudatory communication with Kim. Could this be a case where personality really can overcome our historic challenges with North Korea and the lack of any real progress made by lower-level staff? In other words, is this the kind of problem that can only be solved by the leaders themselves?

Reynolds: The pros and cons of summitry have been endlessly debated. Yes, political leaders can cut through the red tape and the roadblocks imposed by lower-level bureaucrats. But they can also overreach themselves by making promises that experts would consider ill-informed and misguided.

Jimmy Carter put in an unusual amount of time, knowledge and hard work when he hosted a 13-day summit with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David in September 1978. He micromanaged a meeting that, for all its flaws in the larger context of the Middle East, did at least produce peace between Israel and Egypt.

In the end, the value of summitry depends on each specific case. Trump is notorious for despising briefings and not doing his homework. Yet the issues at stake here are enormously complex. Verifiable North Korean denuclearization is a goal that has eluded US presidents for more than a half-century. And there are also collateral implications for the security of America's key Asian allies -- South Korea and Japan -- not to mention the larger question of promoting human rights in Kim's brutal police state.

None of this is going to be resolved with a few secret talks and a barrage of tweets over 24 hours.

CNN: Your book highlights four approaches to diplomacy: appeasement, containment, détente and transformation. Which approach do you see the Trump administration taking thus far with North Korea? And do you believe it is the best approach to pursue at this point? Why?

Reynolds: If Trump read the book, he might call it détente. I would say that at times it verges on appeasement. What can't be denied is that we have seen a sea-change in US relations with North Korea over the last 18 months: tensions have indeed been reduced. Yet why were we "at the brink" in 2017? Arguably because Trump had ratcheted up the tension by trading insults and threatening "little rocket man" with "fire and fury."

This is a president who likes to turn a problem into a drama so he can later take credit for resolving it. There is currently no sign yet of transformation, the likes of which we saw in US-Soviet relations during the Reagan-Gorbachev summits from 1985 to 1988. That transformation was backed up by the sustained work between George Shultz, an outstanding secretary of state, and Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Union's foreign minister at the time. It's unclear whether Kim is simply jollying the White House along, while continuing his nuclear project. If so, the drama of summitry would simply be making the North Korean problem worse in the long run.

CNN: What light can -- or should be -- shed on the state of international relations today by the fact that this sort of personal summit is still being explored between the United States and North Korea? Might we read anything more into this in terms of modern diplomacy writ large?

Reynolds: Why should leaders hold summits in the 21st century when they can communicate in so many other ways? Because, despite all the structural forces shaping our world, individuals still matter in international politics. Imagine US foreign policy if Hillary Clinton were now president. Would Al Gore have gone into Iraq if he had won the election in 2000? In my own country, we would not be facing the current humiliating agony of Brexit if former Prime Minister David Cameron had not decided to hold a referendum on British membership in the European Union, or if his successor, Theresa May, had not proved such an ineffectual leader.

Trying to understand another idiosyncratic human being is why leaders want to meet at the summit -- to fathom the "other." And in those close personal encounters, leaders have to employ all their personal skills, which have to be at peak performance. They have to battle jet lag, information overload, and a host of other possibilities while traveling abroad, including digestive problems (remember when George H.W. Bush threw up at a state banquet in Tokyo in 1992?).

They also have to cope with the frustrations of communicating across a language barrier. Consecutive translations require waiting for the interpreters. Simultaneous translation beamed into an earpiece might seem easier -- but may not be a viable option for those wearing a hearing aid (as Ronald Reagan did). Each leader must get his agenda across to make a strong impact, especially in the opening session, while also remaining intensely alert to the nuances of tone and body language behind what the other person has to say. And at the end it all has to be packaged adeptly for the reporters around the world who are ready to jump on any slip-up or ambiguity.

In short, summitry tests a leader's full capacity. And most leaders, who have used their personal skills to get to the top of their own political system, relish the chance to go head-to-head in the global arena. Top-level diplomacy in the 21st century is still a very human business.

When it comes to "institutional summits," such as the G7, NATO or the European Council, a lot of productive activity occurs outside the view of the media when leaders quietly meet on the margins. That's why George H.W. Bush preferred what he called "non-summit summits" without the fuss and frenzy that is so appealing to Donald J. Trump.

CNN: You identified three phases of summitry: preparation, negotiation and implementation. Assuming all three are still equally relevant in discussions with North Korea, which do you think will be the most difficult for the Trump administration?

Reynolds: All three. Preparation is a serious challenge for the State Department. Its role has been weakened under this administration and many senior posts are still not filled. Trump is also not a skilled and careful negotiator. That may be one reason why he is so obsessively secretive about what goes on in his meetings, down to commandeering the interpreter's notes. And implementation depends on hard, sustained work over a long period of time -- again not something for which the President and his ever-changing cast of advisers are renowned, even if, as he now hints, Hanoi might be one of a series of summits.

CNN: Summitry itself is worth questioning as a valuable tactic, given the ease with which leaders can communicate through technology and social media. Certainly we have seen Trump and Kim use Twitter to message one another. Broadly speaking, do you think summits -- especially personal summits like this one -- still matter as much today as they did in the latter half of the 20th Century?

Reynolds: Of course summits can be ego trips for world leaders. And undoubtedly there are many other ways for them to communicate in the 21st century. But do you feel, even under normal circumstances, that Skype is an adequate substitute for meeting face-to-face? And can the world's problems be reduced to 280 characters? All in all, I'd prefer leaders to meet rather than tweet.

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