You- and Trump -may not like history, but there it is.
5/3/2018 WSJ. By Jay Winik
How risky is the proposed summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un? As America’s greatest modern presidents have found, summitry is an inherently high-stakes gamble. No matter how well scripted, events can take on a life of their own—or go dangerously awry. In negotiations, Mr. Trump is known for making snap decisions that amount to seismic policy shifts. It’s unclear whether this unpredictability would work in Washington’s favor or Pyongyang’s. Worse still, could a failed summit chill relations, or even propel the two sides to arms? If Mr. Trump looks to history, he will find it instructive. High-profile summits involve protocol and posturing, but they also invariably have epic, if not unexpected, consequences. Consider the Yalta Conference, the meeting of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in the waning days of World War II. Churchill had a fever of 102, while Roosevelt’s health had failed so dramatically that onlookers gave the president “six months to live.”
The summit sprawled over eight days, replete with morning meetings among various ministers and military chiefs, afternoon meetings of the big three leaders, and private discussions over meals. Roosevelt tried to improvise, but his legendary diplomatic skills failed him. At one point he gave a nearly incoherent speech about the Germany he had known as a boy, which bore no resemblance to Hitler’s Third Reich. FDR had not read his briefing books “as much as he should have,” one State Department adviser later recalled. Instead the president had naively believed his personality would win over Stalin.
Yalta produced major agreements for the eventual four-way occupation of Berlin, German reparations for the Soviets, and the formation of the United Nations. But as the war’s victors divided the spoils, Roosevelt capitulated to Stalin on the pressing issue of Poland. Reluctant to court confrontation with Soviet troops on the ground, FDR acquiesced— over Churchill’s heated objections—to Stalin’s demand for a Soviet-aligned Polish government. This effectively handed the Poles from one master, the Germans, to another, the Soviets.
Roosevelt also gave in to Stalin’s demand that all the buffer nations in Eastern Europe be “friendly” toward Moscow, planting the seeds of the Cold War. FDR’s reputation has since been dogged by charges that he “sold out” to the Soviets. In truth, the U.S. had a weaker military hand in Eastern Europe. FDR had no coherent strategy for overcoming that disadvantage, and he refused to jeopardize the gains he had made elsewhere.
Things went little better in 1961, when an untested and charismatic new president, John F. Kennedy, traveled to Vienna to meet with Nikita Khrushchev. An overconfident Kennedy brazenly thought he could charm the old Soviet. He couldn’t. Instead, a well-rehearsed Khrushchev berated Kennedy with accusations that the U.S. had been supporting anti-Soviet forces in Europe and Cuba. Kennedy was put on his heels. Far from laying the groundwork for better relations, Kennedy’s uncertain performance convinced Khrushchev he could get away with placing Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, touching off the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kennedy, who took it personally, admitted to a reporter after the Khrushchev summit that it was the “roughest thing in my life.” He was so upset by his performance that he pounded the inside of the car door when he departed the Soviet Embassy.
Overconfidence by one side was also decisive at the 1986 meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland. For much of the decade, the American and Soviet superpowers had escalated their arms race. They came to Reykjavik for an informal prep meeting, hoping to lay the groundwork for more extensive talks in Washington.
Mr. Gorbachev shrewdly departed from the script and sought to woo Reagan with a full list of specific proposals for arms control. Reagan didn’t flinch; he and his team had come prepared. The two leaders went so far as to discuss eliminating all nuclear weapons, but then Mr. Gorbachev insisted on imposing limits on research into missile-defense technology.
Reagan refused to budge on that point. Instead he walked away from what he thought was a bad deal. Yet far from finger-pointing, he continued to have a warm relationship with Mr. Gorbachev. Critics charged the impromptu negotiations were dangerous—contemplating the elimination of nuclear weapons without adequate study. They also called the talks a failure, since no agreements were made. Reykjavik, however, set the stage for a far-reaching U.S.-Soviet arms agreement in the future, as well as the historic thawing of the Cold War.
In all this history, there are some clear lessons for Mr. Trump as he sits down with North Korea’s leader. First, always expect the unexpected. Second, resist bad deals. Third, come prepared. Trying to rely on your personality and charm to win over a malleable opponent is a recipe for disaster; it failed not only Roosevelt in Yalta, but also Kennedy in Vienna— and Mr. Gorbachev in Reykjavik. By contrast, having a broad strategy, sticking to principles, and refusing to waver from the bottom line secured Eastern Europe for Stalin, emboldened Khrushchev, and helped Reagan win the Cold War.
When assessing the hazards and opportunities, it is also crucial to consider Mr. Trump’s personality and negotiating approach. Thus far he has been sure-footed on North Korea. But along with his many strengths, he can be thin-skinned and susceptible to flattery. He makes feuds personal and sometimes promises one thing yet does another. These instincts could be counterproductive with an adversary like Mr. Kim, who is not a congressional committee chairman but the dictatorial head of a bellicose nuclear state. Mr. Trump must not lose sight of this. Kennedy effectively did with Khrushchev and paid the price. Reagan didn’t with Mr. Gorbachev and reaped the rewards.
Having rolled the dice, the president will surely make history with Mr. Kim. But whether the North Korean summit will be remembered as a breakthrough or disaster is now up to Mr. Trump.