A central goal of Nixon’s rapprochement with China was to use Beijing as a wedge against the Soviet Union—what Nixon called “triangular diplomacy.” Recognizing (eventually) Red China was indeed a concession to brutal, repressive regime, but it served a larger strategic and moral goal—containing and ultimately defeating the far more dangerous Soviet Union.
Trump faced no such pressure and got no such linkage benefit. His one-time, skylarking meeting with Kim Jong-un had not noticeable improved the U.S. strategic position in Asia. In desperation, Trump is now suggesting that this meeting forestalled a regional nuclear war which might kill millions. But this is transparently ridiculous: it was Trump himself who ginned up last year’s war crisis against the nearly monolithic opinion of the North Korea and nuclear expert communities that war was unnecessary. Containing and deterring, sanctioning and isolating North Korea are feasible options that did not require this photo-op summit victory for the North.
Perhaps if the United States today was in the more dire straits of 1972—in a long, inconclusive war, facing two other large, truculent opponents—Trump’s Singapore gamble might have been worth it. But the stakes of Trump-Kim summit were far lower and the international dangers exiting such a gamble were far less. Nixon played a weakening, Vietnam-era hand well, while Trump played a strong hand poorly. Singapore simply was not as necessary as Beijing 1972 was.
Robert Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing can be found at his website . He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore in this picture released on June 12, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. KCNA via REUTERS