The U.S. president talks lots about the 'art of the deal.' But when it comes to diplomatic negotiations, his liar's-poker tactics are seriously misplaced.
PARIS — Some years ago, in Beijing, one of my Chinese friends told me this: "You Westerners are very good at chess, but we Asians are masters at Go. In the long term, this gives us the advantage."
I remembered that conversation when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump engaged in their international game of bluff. Their antics bear little resemblance to the diplomacy of Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. It's something you'd expect to find instead in Las Vegas or Macao, where the name of the game is absolute self-confidence, come what may, rather than strategic skill or long-term vision.
There is still time for yet another change in plans between now and June 12, when Kim and Trump are scheduled to meet in Singapore, but most likely the meeting will proceed. The next question, then, is whether this spectacular summit will produce the ultimate "win-win" scenario — a triumph for both leaders — or an infinitely more complex and ultimately imbalanced result.
Washington broke the most basic rule of the art of negotiation: to give without receiving anything in return.
In the past, Donald Trump chided his predecessor, Barack Obama, for being a week negotiator — for not understanding "the art of the deal." And yet, given his handling of the recent Iranian and Korean crises, it seems Trump himself has much to learn. Sure, he knows that to set the scene requires monopolizing people's attention. And yes, he's admittedly good at marketing. But the art of negotiation is an entirely different thing.
One must begin with at least a basic understanding of the other's point of view. Comprehension of the respective interests of both parties is also required. A good diplomat needs to know what, precisely, is negotiable and what is not.
If the June 12 summit goes ahead as planned, because Kim Jong-un has everything to gain and Trump has so much to lose if the event is canceled or deferred. Even at the outset — by offering Pyongyang a summit while asking for nothing really in return — Washington broke the most basic rule of the art of negotiation: to give without receiving anything in return.
It's likely that the summit, assuming it takes place, will be marked by a series of misunderstandings. History will remember it as a "day of dunces' who, rather than bring us closer to peace, upped the chances of an even greater conflict. Who really believes that the North Korean regime, despite its declarations, is ready to give up its nuclear weapons program?
A meeting with Kim Jong-un and members of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – Photo: Li Peng/Xinhua/ZUMA
In evoking as the "Libyan example," as he did several weeks ago, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton only reinforced the apprehensions of the North Korean regime. Because giving up nuclear arms could, for North Korean, lead to the same tragic end as Libya's Col. Gaddafi. And why should they trust American speeches after the unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal of 2015?
For a regime as obsessed with its political and physical survival as the one in Pyongyang, taking an alternate route to win time makes sense. No wonder it decided to switch from crazy threats to a charm offensive that is all the more effective because of how unexpected it is. The North Korean regime seems to better understand American power than the White House understands North Korean power.
Washington thinks it can tempt the North Koreans by talking about the incredible possibilities for economic growth that a peninsula-wide, denuclearization agreement could bring about. But that message only works on the South Koreans, who are split between the fear of war and the hope of prosperous reconciliation with their North Korean brethren. Pyongyang has a different vision from that of Seoul, whose hopes only serve the cynical calculations of the former.
The only "rational" actors in this scenario — those who truly look to defend or advance their views — are North Korea and China.
Does Donald Trump, with his marketing mindset, truly believe he can resolve the Korean maelstrom before imposing his peace plan on a seduced and admiring Middle East? Or is this really just about winning over American voters ahead of November's midterm elections?
Time and again — from the Middle East to Asia — Trump's obsession with showing that he's doing the opposite of Obama has the potential to win big. Or lose big. With regards to North Korea, we can't forget about China, its neighbor and unpredictable ally.
China may be the one power that is delighted (albeit discreetly so) about the coming "day of the dupes' knowing that, in the short term at least, it will continue to have a far more legitimate role to play in North Korea's affairs than the U.S. president does. In other words, the only "rational" actors in this scenario — those who truly look to defend or advance their views — are North Korea and China.
Those who try to analyze the strategic thought process of Donald Trump and see him as the direct political descendent of the early 19th-century U.S. president Andrew Jackson are not only insulting Jackson. They're also misleading themselves, because when it comes to Trump's political ideas or diplomatic action, he's not following any kind of model or ancestor. His handling of the North Korean affair is proof of that.