Official Washington was still processing the surprise announcement that President Trump intends to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. With Tuesday’s announcement that CIA Director Mike Pompeo has been nominated to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, a new foreign policy team will face added challenges in the lead-up to the proposed meeting with North Korea.
Face-to-face diplomacy can affect the course of international relations — Marcus Holmes and Nicholas Wheeler explained their research on this topic here at the Monkey Cage. But will the United States and North Korea reap the benefits that face-to-face diplomacy can offer?
The nature of diplomacy provides reasons for pessimism. Here are five reasons why.
1) Face-to-face diplomacy requires a lot of preparation — by others
Even presidents who fancy themselves foreign policy presidents — Richard Nixon, for example — leave the nitty gritty of diplomacy to others. Presidents can actively engage their foreign policy advisers, make official visits abroad and develop strong personal relationships with foreign leaders.
They can’t do all the legwork international diplomacy requires. Nixon knew that, and relied on his subordinates. Despite his suspiciousness of Henry Kissinger — who served as national security adviser and then secretary of state — Nixon allowed Kissinger significant maneuvering room in foreign negotiations.
Kissinger did the secret advance work for Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. Kissinger then helped choreograph the trip — he started negotiating the final communiqué even before China extended a formal invitation to Nixon to come to Beijing. To quote Kissinger, “to leave communiqué drafting for the actual visit is to court disaster.”
Nixon is hardly the exception. Most secretaries of state travel far more often than the presidents they serve. Consider the busy flight schedules for Kissinger and John Kerry, each of whom served under a president who actively traveled abroad. Moreover, as Elizabeth Saunders and I show in a recently published paper, when secretaries of state travel, they tend to do the “rounds.” Much of their travel involves return visits to a relatively small number of countries, which serve as key diplomatic interlocutors.
The question, now, of course, is whether Trump will have a well-prepared team to make a trip to the Korean peninsula work. As it is, Trump does not put a high premium on consultation. His quick acceptance of North Korea’s invitation for a meeting blindsided his advisers, including Tillerson, who was then traveling in Africa. Pompeo will be coming into this position cold, without the full range of connections and experience to run interference for a presidential meeting with a foreign leader.
2) Diplomacy has a learning curve
An administration’s diplomatic engagement changes over time. Consequently, secretarial travel patterns tend to differ between a first and a second term. My recent study shows that in most two-term administrations, secretaries of state traveled just as frequently in the second term — but tended to restrict their trips to focus on countries linked directly to longstanding U.S. security goals. The learning curve affects presidents, too. Barack Obama offered soaring rhetoric in early speeches in Prague and Cairo. Like his predecessors, he eventually pursued a more traditional foreign policy.
Trump’s aspirations in North Korea might reflect more than a bit of naïve ambition and misdirected effort. Trump’s goal for the meeting — a denuclearized North Korea — is laudable. Still, is a meeting, now, the best way to accomplish it? With a turnover in key personnel, including the secretary of state, the learning curve promises to be steep.
3) Skilled diplomats — not presidents — work out the deals in advance
Face-to-face diplomacy between a U.S. president and a foreign adversary is a rare event, and the agenda is usually modest — on purpose.
We might think of such talks or a summit as a “business meeting” when leaders finally settle their differences. Trump, who often talks about himself as a dealmaker, may see them that way, too.
But presidents sign deals that foreign policy professionals spend months — or years — negotiating. Even in a meeting with a longtime ally, the issues can be complex, the differences between parties are often great, and the challenges of implementation are many.
The odds for a North Korea deal are long. The State Department will have a new leader at the helm; the department has hemorrhaged seasoned personnel, and the administration doesn’t have an ambassador to South Korea. This means that the networks and knowledge that could avoid pitfalls in negotiations just aren’t in place.
4) Presidential face time is a scarce commodity
A face-to-face meeting carries symbolic weight, as a scarce resource, and loses value quickly through overuse. Indeed, it might hold value only when used the first time. North Korea has repeatedly sought face time with a U.S. president. Once a North Korean leader secures that goal, the United States will have played what is perhaps its most important card.
5) Not all talks are helpful
We should never assume that talking “does no harm.” Presidents must recognize dangers in injecting themselves directly into diplomacy before conditions for intervention are ripe.
True, even summit failures can produce breakthroughs — consider the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The collapse of the talks spurred efforts to bridge the divide, and led soon to a major nuclear arms control treaty.
But Kim is not Gorbachev — and sometimes failure is just that. Bill Clinton’s 2000 attempt at Camp David to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to agreement was such a failure. Talking can lead to shouting, which can lead to violence — in this case, the second Intifada.
Unfortunately, the signs today point to a limited outcome, or even a setback, given the great distance between the U.S. and North Korean negotiating positions. The parties assuredly differ on the terms of “denuclearization,” and perhaps whether it would bind the United States, no less than North Korea.
As I show in a study of the Iran negotiations, parties bring to negotiations certain assumptions about the adversary’s intentions — and these assumptions shape whether an agreement will live or die. The fact that new personnel will now bring new assumptions to the table will add to the obstacles blocking an agreement with North Korea.
James H. Lebovic is professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University.