It could be a bad idea, if it stems from naivete, which is certainly possible. Most infamously at the Yalta Conference, an American president, FDR, also relied on his people-judgement of Stalin, ceding Eastern Europe to Soviet domination.
It could also be futile, or it could be for show, which is most likely. But a meeting with Duterte is actually possible. And Duterte demurs, as too busy, which is actually quite telling. John Ciliza’s narrative of “why” is based on a presupposition of Trump as a simple, visible person. This contrasts with the other popular view of Trump, as a devious, maneuvering person. The two views contradict.
From the intelligence perspective, the diagnosis of a world leader as “simple” can only be reached by exclusion, and rarely, if ever. It seems to go against having the job. Was Mahatma Gandhi simple, or devious? Quoting from Time Magazine,
The real man, if it is still possible to use such a term after the generations of hagiography and reinvention, was infinitely more interesting, one of the most complex and contradictory personalities of the century. His full name, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was memorably—and literally—translated into English by the novelist G.V. Desani as “Action-Slave Fascination-Moon Grocer,” and he was as rich and devious a figure as that glorious name suggests.
The astute reader will note that Donald Trump is not a Gandhi. But neither is he a Dennis Rodman, the last sucker to be gulled by a psychopath. Trump’s genuine campaign naivete about the rest of the world has not continued, as shown by fifty-nine cruise missiles.
Let’s now explore a theory that grants Trump a beneficially devious nature. For this, we need to do a quick evaluation of U.S. foreign policy since World War II, billions spent for influence, projection of power, and wars, on behalf of noble aims:
- U.S. Foreign policy since World War II had a single major success, the policy of Containment. Even with the consideration that Putin’s Russia has a spiteful desire to tear down anything with the fingerprint of NATO, things are still better than they were before.
- A conditional success, with the creation of a great competitor, was the opening of China by Nixon and Kissinger. But it is arguably true that left in isolation, China could have evolved as implacably as North Korea, with mortal result.
- All the rest of U.S. initiatives, pursued at great cost in lives and treasure, and even those of guile and cunning, had negative or ambiguous result.
- The above excludes some notably successful negotiations, such as SALT, excluded because they had zero or negative cost.
In the old days, U.S. policy was guided by a brain trust of “old wise men”, some of whom appear in group photos of Henry Kissinger’s White House Years. Even though the old wise men (except for Kissinger, who wasn’t old at the time) are no longer with us, foreign policy receives constant input from those who think they are the current gray eminences. It’s natural for a political commentator to pattern his thoughts on what they might have done or said. It goes with the top hat and striped pants.
One of the most overused words of the foreign affairs vocabulary is “influence.” A commentary frequently ends a topic with the word. Nobody remembers what it’s good for. There is a similar word, “leverage”, that is far more topical. Firmly entrenched in business, everybody knows what it is. So let’s use it.
Trump may be the first president to understand how the rise of China has diminished U.S. leverage in the Pacific. The problem of North Korea cannot be solved without more leverage than the U.S. has. Hence, the search for leverage.
Leverage was crucially lost with the defection of Duterte’s Philippines to the China orbit. The consequence of loss of this country is the disputed international status of the South China Sea, discussed in Trump White House vows to stop China taking South China Sea islands. The international status of the sea cannot be defended in any meaningful way by the transience of U.S. presence forced by Duterte. This is why, in Xi-Trump meeting; Long Range; North Korea, I concluded,
Since Trump’s concept of achievements is that they are fungible, he reconsiders the South China Sea. There are things you want to keep, and things you want to trade. It’s key to streamlining a business….Maybe it’s trading material. I’ll finish this a little later.
Trading material, in the form of some compromise on the Sea, could take the form of the agreement-to-ignore-contradiction, as with Taiwan. This contradiction-in-formality, new to us, figures throughout the history of the Celestial Kingdom. But perhaps it is not enough material to enlist China in the only North Korea goal with a chance of success, regime change. The program requires, at the very least, China’s seamless participation with interdiction, isolation, blockades, and U.S. use of force that would otherwise have insufficient effect.
Trump may have inventoried our trading material, and discerned that it isn’t enough. But if he can pull Duterte back from the China orbit, China’s certainty that they own the Sea lessens. It’s back in play. This is the likely reason for Duterte’s demurral on a White House visit. He’s not “simple” either.
The meeting with Kim Jong-un will not happen. Does Trump know this? John Ciliza thinks not. I think Trump floats it for show. But when considering someone’s “meetability”, it is worth noting that Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward killed, by one estimate, 45 million in four years. This was preceded by Mao’s Classicide of landlords, with death estimates ranging from 1 million to 28 million. This is twice the population of North Korea. So we cannot deny Kim Jong-un “meetability” simply because he is, along with the eminently meetable Stalin, one of the great mass murderers of history. Diplomacy makes liberal use of deodorants.
Perhaps Donald Trump is as devious as Mahatma Gandhi.