The spectacle of such summits surely appeals to Trump’s taste for theatrics and ratings bonanzas—for made-for-TV “wins.” But they’re also critical components of a process Trump appears to have pursued with threats of war with North Korea, trade war with the European Union, and now a showdown with Iran: Escalate tensions in order to de-escalate them, and then claim victory. “Begin by hurling insults at the other side,” Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post last week, in summarizing the approach. “Threaten extreme consequences. Then meet with the other side, backpedal, and triumphantly announce that you have saved the world from a crisis that your rhetoric and actions caused in the first place.” In the North Korean case, it took eight months for Trump to go from “fire and fury” to offering a summit. In the Iranian case, the shift from threats of unprecedented destruction to offers of unprecedented diplomatic engagement took about a week—though it could always shift back.
The leader-to-leader summit—and especially the private one-on-one sit-down between those leaders without advisers present—is also a pure distillation of what appears to be Trump’s preferred method of handling international affairs: a coercive, transactional, highly personalized bilateralism in which, as the political theorist Danielle Allen recently put it, “global politics is conducted as a series of deals with Donald Trump.”