By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
This month is not only the half-way point of US President Donald Trump’s first term in office, but also the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s elevation to the presidency in 1969. While some have compared Trump’s travails to Watergate, there may be other powerful parallels to be drawn between the two presidents.
Nixon — who, like Trump, came to power at a time of significant domestic social and political upheaval — had an intense focus on foreign affairs from 1971 to 1973. Coinciding with the controversies of his Vietnam policy, he scored a string of achievements including his landmark meeting with Chairman Mao in China, and the signing of two agreements with Moscow that limited nuclear weapons.
While the international context of Trump’s presidency is significantly different to that of the early 1970s, it is possible he will increasingly turn his attention to foreign policy during 2019 and 2020, for at least two reasons. First, with Democrats now controlling the House of Representatives, Trump, like several other recent presidents, will find it difficult to gain momentum for any significant new domestic legislation.
A second reason could be Trump’s desire to establish a legacy in the event that he fails to be re-elected, decides not to seek a second term, voluntarily leaves office or is forced out before his term expires in January 2021. Previous presidents have often viewed foreign-policy initiatives as a key part of their legacy, and Trump appears no different.
Immediately after November’s mid-term elections, Trump undertook a significant foreign travel schedule, including attendance at events in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, and at the G20 summit in Argentina the same month, where he met Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss trade.
Already this year he has been planning a second meeting next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and is seeking to ratify the “new” North American Free Trade Agreement deal with Mexico and Canada, not to mention attempting to secure a successful outcome to the ongoing trade spat with China. All this along with day-to-day foreign-policy gambits such as his controversial intervention last week in the power struggle in Venezuela, when he recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate head of state rather than President Nicolas Maduro.
Yet even if Trump does now “double down” on foreign policy, a major uncertainty is whether he can secure any genuine, positive breakthroughs. Take the example of North Korea, where the Trump team has sought to draw a parallel with Nixon’s China policy. While Trump could yet secure a breakthrough with Pyongyang, what is striking about his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un’s regime is the spur-of-the-moment nature of the original decision last year, with little detailed preparation. In contrast, Nixon’s visit to see Mao in 1972 came after years of contact building and diplomacy by the president’s aides, with a goal of normalizing relations.
Even now, more than six months after the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim, it is unclear whether the US president has spent any significant amount of time getting to grips with the complexity of the North Korean nuclear challenge. He appears instead to have focused on media relations and building up the perceived prestige of a second summit.
To this end, it is still not clear whether Trump has a comprehensive, clear or coherent strategy toward Pyongyang. This has not been helped by the period of change that his foreign-policy team has been going through, with the recent departure of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Given the uncertain progress since the Singapore summit, next month’s meeting with Kim contains much complexity for Trump, based around US alliances, the non-proliferation regime, and what exactly would constitute “denuclearization” on the peninsula. It is here that some of the most recent complications between Washington and Pyongyang have sprung up around the latter’s purported “commitment to denuclearization,” a phrase that always had the potential for different interpretation by the two nations.
To Trump it seems to mean unilateral disarmament. For Kim, it appears to be more about participating in lengthy negotiations during which North Korea should be treated as an equal to the US, giving him further propaganda victories.
It was always likely that Kim would be wary about making concrete commitments, at least initially, and would want to win economic and political concessions from Trump before agreeing to any reduction in nuclear capabilities, let alone “full denuclearization.” Set against this context, much risk as well as opportunity hangs over the outcome of next month’s Trump-Kim meeting.
Nevertheless, following the success of the Democrats in November’s elections, Trump may now increasingly turn to Korea and the wider world stage in the run-up to 2020. This will be especially likely if he perceives significant potential opportunities on the horizon, including the elusive possibility of de-escalating tensions in the world’s last Cold War-era frontier, through the prize of verifiable and comprehensive Korean denuclearization.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.