Between this and the White House invitation to Duterte over the weekend, we now have a firm answer to the question, “Is there any foreign leader so repellent Trump won’t meet with him?” Believe it or not, Obama’s willingness to meet with foreign bad guys without preconditions once he became president was a major early knock on him as a candidate in 2007 among Republicans — and not just Republicans. Although, in fairness to Trump, he says nothing here about meeting with Kim unconditionally. On the contrary:
President Donald Trump said he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un amid heightened tensions over his country’s nuclear weapons program if the circumstances were right.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump said Monday in an interview with Bloomberg News. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”…
“Most political people would never say that,” Trump said of his willingness to meet with the reclusive Kim, “but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”
“Honored” is weird hyperbole to use about someone who runs a gulag state but this may be part of a conscious strategy by Trump to de-escalate in North Korea by flattering Kim. Yesterday he called him a “smart cookie” and has made a point lately of marveling in interviews at Kim’s ability to consolidate power as an untested 27-year-old thrust into leadership after his father’s death. The uncharitable view of those comments is that Trump’s once again betraying his admiration of strongmen, especially the most ruthless members of the breed. Case in point: His latest comments about Duterte.
Duterte first gained global prominence as well as criticism for his aggressive and violent war on drugs as mayor of Davao City. Human rights groups say that, as president, his narcotics crackdown has led to more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings.
“He’s been very very tough on that drug problem, but he has a massive drug problem,” Trump said in the interview…
“You know he’s very popular in the Philippines,” Trump said. “He has a very high approval rating in the Philippines.”
The more charitable view is that there’s method to the madness. North Korea has always sought legitimacy from the United States so here’s Trump dangling some legitimacy at Kim if he’s willing to behave in a more conciliatory way. He can get the stick if he continues to nuclearize or he can get the carrot of some sort of relationship with the White House if he eases off.
The calculus in meeting with odious foreign leaders is always the same: Does the meeting advance American interests enough to justify recognizing that regime’s legitimacy? Sometimes the answer is an easy yes, as when the president meets with the leader of China. Sometimes it’s an easy no, as when the U.S. pulls its ambassador from Syria. The case of Duterte is hard because the Philippines is a U.S. ally (potentially an important one vis-a-vis China) but Duterte himself is a sinister character. I think the calculus points against a meeting for the simple reason that good relations with that country can likely be preserved without any White House invite. The risk to American interests in forgoing a meeting is small enough that it’s not worth legitimizing Duterte to hedge against it.
North Korea is a hard case too, but for the opposite reason — the benefit to American interests is potentially great if a meeting or series of meetings convinced Kim to peacefully disarm. The odds of that are verrrrrry long, and the signal that would be sent to other menaces could be dangerous (build a sophisticated enough nuclear program and you too might be able to scare the White House into recognizing your authority), but a new Korean war would be so catastrophic that it’d be worth paying some diplomatic price to avert it. Besides, there’s less risk of legitimizing Kim by granting him a meeting than there would be in, say, legitimizing Assad since North Korea is viewed universally as a strange, archaic, uniquely isolated and irrational cult-ish state. The message from a Trump/Assad meeting would be that the U.S. is siding with Shiites in the great sectarian war; America’s Sunni allies would go berserk, with all sorts of unintended consequences. The message from a Trump/Kim meeting would be “we all know this guy is nuts but maybe we can talk him down off the ledge.” Would any nation, including South Korea and Japan, oppose it if there was reason to believe it might produce meaningful diplomatic gains?
Exit question: Er, where would a Trump/Kim summit possibly take place? The only option is China, right?