By Trevor Busch
Prior to February 1972, most surprised observers must have thought it would be a frosty Friday in July before arch-Cold warrior Richard Nixon would look to establish U.S. diplomatic relations with Red China, that hated communist juggernaut that held sway over more than a billion of the globe’s inhabitants.
At that time, the two nations had been at each other’s throats in Korea less than two decades before, while internally Chairman Mao’s ideologically-driven Cultural Revolution was in full swing and millions of Chinese were being persecuted by cadres of communist youth — perhaps not an opportune time to come to Beijing swaddled in the colours of the chief capitalist exploiter.
But Tricky Dick was not your average president, as subsequent events would come to reveal. Although today there is little doubt the disgraced president could have been held criminally culpable for the events of the Watergate scandal (and other suspected abuses of power), Nixon would escape justice when placeholder president Gerald Ford — in one of his first actions in office — issued a blanket immunity to the embattled former commander in chief immediately following his resignation. But that was all still to come.
Following Nixon’s successful visit in 1972, a curious proverb arose among supporters and detractors alike: Only Nixon could go to China.
And the phrase has stuck in pop culture memory and parlance, although perhaps its meaning has faded over time for younger generations. Before 1972, Nixon’s unyielding opposition to communism had been well known. His visit to China wasn’t merely a departure from his previous position, it was miles apart. Today when people say only Nixon could go to China, it’s generally a reference to the perception that only a politician or leader with a reputation of upholding particular political values could perform an action in seeming defiance of them without jeopardizing his support or credibility.
Sound familiar? In the bizarro-world of international relations in 2018, perhaps only Trump could go to North Korea.
Not that the president is actually hobnobbing it up at Trump Tower Pyongyang, if such a thing actually exists. One suspects not given the rigid dictatorship that controls every aspect of life there, and the desperate poverty that grips the nation. Instead the two leaders met in Singapore, but that doesn’t make it any less of an historic occasion. No sitting U.S. president has ever met a North Korean leader.
While I hesitate to ascribe any successes to Donald Trump on the international stage, especially considering his recent declaration of open season on his closest allies on the trade file, the bombastic real estate baron with the flamboyant personality and elaborate comb-over might have been just the man to talk to eccentric dictator Kim Jong-un, whose consolidation of power over the past few years in North Korea has rattled the nuclear sabre and included public executions via anti-aircraft gun, if reports are to be believed.
In typical Trump style, The Donald approached the whole summit like a special episode of The Apprentice, ready to apply his shmoozy “art of the deal” to the question of nuclear proliferation. In some ways, there couldn’t be starker differences between the two leaders.
One grew up the wealthy son of a New York real estate developer, who through good times and bad has managed to capture the American imagination, so much so the populist candidate was able to secure the presidency in 2016. Jong-un, on other hand, comes from darker and more murky beginnings, the latest scion of the Kim dynasty that has held North Korea in an iron grip for almost 70 years through oppression and totalitarianism.
Trump is the embodiment of the gaudy magazine-cover tabloid-style example of what every misguided foreigner probably thinks of as an American capitalist success story. Even Trump himself probably forgets that this is mostly image, one he has carefully cultivated over decades in the media spotlight. The truth doesn’t really matter in Trump’s world, only what you are able to convince people is the truth. It’s the signature anti-value of the most successful confidence men, and there are many who liberally apply that title to Trump and his entourage.
It’s tragic, but it’s one area where the two leaders were probably able to find some common ground. Lying to the people and making up the truth to fit the dictates of the regime are foundational pillars of the North Korean government. Alternative facts, anyone? Maybe Trump and Jong-un traded propaganda tips over coffee while deciding the fates of their millions of respective subjects.
One wonders what Trump hoped to take away from the summit, beyond the obvious. Any firm commitment from the North Koreans on nuclear disarmament probably isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, unless the U.S. can convince its people and her allies to end crippling sanctions, which is definitely what Jong-un was after. And that diplomatic coup will be far easier said than done given the ill feelings the Trump administration is stirring up with its trade agenda on the world stage.
Still, the two cut an incredibly odd figure. Picturing their discussions across a dark mahogany table almost has the air of indecent hilarity to it, if it wasn’t so desperately serious. And one wonders who reached out to set up this perilous international meeting. Was Jong-un busily reviewing execution lists and nuclear stockpiles over his morning tea, glancing up at CNN to see which minority group Trump is persecuting today, and then deciding right there and then this was a man I can talk to? I mean, after all, apparently we share some interests. It’s just that we execute enemies of the people instead of hurling racist insults or denigrating their value to the greater society.
And it seems Jong-un is soaking it all in. Once a pariah to almost every nation and its leadership the world over, Jong-un is no longer slumming it with the likes of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad or even Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but chumming it up with the leader many consider to be the most powerful man in the world. That’s quite a rise from the international gutter for a dictator who still endorses forced-labour camps, and in the photos and video that have been released he is grinning from ear to ear basking in the media spotlight.
Adding an air of legitimacy to the this most illegitimate of global regimes will probably be one of the unintended consequences of the summit. And with the agreement that has been forged between the two calling for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Trump has already been swabbing the media decks with his version of events, calling the summit a resounding success. But critics are already sounding alarms, suggesting the North Korean regime is the epitome of untrustworthy, and has broken reams of international agreements in the past. And a key omission from the declaration — any consideration given to verification of nuclear disarmament in the future — has left a giant hole in Trump’s so-called diplomatic triumph.
Say what you will about the man, Trump has managed to do what many others in the past have failed to achieve — a clear commitment to denuclearization from North Korea. It is a at the very least a step in the right direction. Time will tell, of course, if the North Koreans have any intention of honouring what has been agreed to in Singapore.
And now it seems like the pair are old grade school chums, with Trump claiming to have forged a special relationship with Jong-un, with the possibility of the dictator making an official state visit to the U.S. in the future. If critics thought a summit in Singapore added legitimacy to the North Korean regime, a wine and cheese reception at the White House complete with all the pomp and circumstance of a diplomatic visit is what amounts to a rubber stamp acceptance of the nation’s abysmal human rights record. Not a message the U.S. used to be fond of sending, but the Trump administration is a radically different kettle of fish from any that have come before it.
Like Nixon in China in 1972, it appears Trump may have pulled off a diplomatic coup on the world stage, and he’s unlikely to see much egg on his face in the near future unless the deal completely falls through. So perhaps only Trump really could go to North Korea.
But like Nixon, Trump is still facing down scandal at home surrounding his election and its association with Russian influence, and it’s not outside of the realm of possibilities that Trump may still end up at the bad end of an impeachment, not unlike what was facing Tricky Dick back in 1974. And in that case with a radical conservative stalwart like Vice-President Mike Pence waiting in the wings to take over should Trump get the Congressional axe, we might all end up longing for the days of The Donald.