As we know all too well, an ignorant complacency is the trademark of Trumpism. It should surprise no one that our cocksure president has dashed off without expert advice to a rendezvous with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Trump boasted to reporters that he has made no systematic preparation, presumably because he is a self-advertised “genius” of fabulous intelligence whose intuition will quickly tell him whether Kim is a likable or trustworthy partner.
“Intuition” — even in talents exceeding his — is a risky qualification in diplomacy, as Trump might recall if he took the slightest interest in recent presidential history. George W. Bush boasted after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin that he had looked the latest Russian autocrat in the eye and assessed him positively.
This was a spectacularly naive evaluation of a veteran ex-KGB intriguer who had plundered Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet entities as the the world’s principal troublemaker. For all we know, Putin was even then plotting the 2016 subversion of US elections — a matter we shall learn more about when Robert Mueller renders his report.
In Bush’s era, Putin was already renewing old Russian adventures in the Middle East, the better to thwart Bush’s aims in Iraq. Fifteen years later, Bush’s impulsive invasion of Iraq has had the effect of enhancing Iranian influence. And notwithstanding Bush’s showboating descent upon a U.S. aircraft carrier to proclaim “mission accomplished.”
Now we have another unschooled president whose egotism dwarf’s Bush’s, and who also trusts untutored “intuition” in dealing with sly and dangerous. The lesser Bush at least had prayer and the benefit of advice from his father’s former national security adviser, who went to great lengths to warn him away from the Iraq folly. Trump has as his chief adviser Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a grass-green diplomatic novice, and the known warmonger, John Bolton, who would probably prefer another Korean war.
Meanwhile, Trump's boasting tips Kim that he is dealing with a credulous booby. Trump plumes and struts as a deal-maker, an inflated claim that rests on a book he claims to have written but didn’t, “The Art of the Deal.” And deal making in Asia has a mixed history.
For those lulled by Trump’s claims who may know little of the history of the Korean peninsula, a brief primer. Its partition was ultimately a product of prolonged Japanese occupation and its de facto division decreed by the UN at the end of WWII. The US was given a “protectorate” over the south, an updated version of the “mandates” granted by the League of Nations a quarter century earlier — including the British mandate in Palestine that yielded the state of Israel and half a century of conflict. North Korea soon became a Stalinist satellite; and with prompting whose source remains obscure North Korea launched an invasion of the south in !950 — a stab for dominance in Asia that President Truman resisted. The result is enduring stalemate, which many fitful U.S. efforts have failed to modify — rendering South Korea a prosperous modern state and North Korea a starving militaristic society under the Kim family. No American president — not President Eisenhower, who accepted partition, nor President Carter, who proposed to reduce the U.S. military presence, has altered the situation by so much as a square inch. This is the formidable problem to which Trump brings his uninstructed “intuition.”
The great George F Kennan, father of the “containment” strategy in the Cold War (who incidentally danced a jig of joy when Truman decided to resist the 1950 invasion of South Korea) wrote an amusing book about diplomatic amateurism of the Trump variety: how various tyros of U.S. statecraft relied on instinct to gum up many diplomatic challenges. For a consummate professional like Kennan, it is a predictable point of view. But Kennan’s “American Diplomacy, 1900-1950” ought to be required reading at every White House.
The alternative is prayerful trust. Bismarck summed it up when he remarked, “God takes care of fools, drunks, and the USA.” Perhaps it is not altogether blasphemous to hope that the Almighty is on full-time duty this week in Singapore.