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Trump Goes to North Korea. Or Not.

In one of the most daring diplomatic moves in decades, the president seeks his own Nixon-to-China moment. This one might not go so well.

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A scandal-prone American president tries to break a decades-old foreign policy stalemate by opening up relations, first covertly and then in a big summit, with a hostile and isolated Asian power.

That scenario describes President Donald Trump’s negotiations for a groundbreaking meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as soon as next month (possible locations include Sweden, Switzerland, Vietnam, and Singapore). But it also describes President Richard Nixon’s most far-reaching diplomatic success, the overture to China that began in 1971 with a covert jaunt to Beijing by Henry Kissinger. As Robin Wright of The New Yorker noted on Wednesday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s surreptitious visit to North Korea on Easter was “reminiscent of the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret trip.”

There are many ways in which Trump recalls the worst of Nixon: the paranoia, the eagerness to exploit social divisions and partisan passions, the racially coded appeals to “law and order” while also showing contempt for the rule of law, and acting like a madman to scare foreign adversaries. But could Trump have some of Nixon’s virtues, too? If, as the old saying goes, “only Nixon could go to China,” is it possible that only Trump could go to North Korea?

America’s policy of diplomatic non-recognition of Communist China, which began in the early 1950s, was decried as counterproductive by some critics, especially Asian specialists, from the start. But one reason earlier presidents couldn’t break the taboo of going to China was that hardline anti-communists, led by Nixon himself, would attack any such move as a sign of weakness. But as president, Nixon had sufficient credibility among hawks to dampen any such criticism. In the same way, Trump’s hold on the Republican base gives him leeway to talk to foreign adversaries that other presidents, particularly Democrats, haven’t had.

As Louis Menand noted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker, the opening to China was made possible because of a confluence of interests between Nixon and Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, and Zhou Enlai, the country’s premier. Reading Menand’s piece today, as Trump negotiates with Kim, reveals striking parallels.

China, he wrote, “was by no means a world power, and it had just been ravaged by one of the paroxysms of self-destruction that possess totalitarian regimes, Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It had nothing to gain by persisting in its self-imposed isolation and much to hope for from a show of cordial relations with the United States.” Much the same could be said about North Korea today (though, of course, there is little chance of its becoming a global economic power like China). Menand later added, “Mao and [Zhou] wanted to show that they could be taken seriously as statesmen. In Nixon, they found the man to help them, because that’s what Nixon wanted for himself.” That almost precisely describes the dynamic between Kim and Trump today.

Famously insecure, like Trump, Nixon was driven to make a grand diplomatic gesture that would earn him the respect of his critics, especially elite liberals. His gambit was also motivated by a desire to be at the center of a public relations coup. “The conviction that Nixon’s standing depended less on his actions than on their presentation was a bane of his Administration,” Henry Kissinger once observed. “It caused him to seek to embellish his most incontestable achievements, or to look for insurance in the face of even the most overwhelming probability of success. It was the psychological essence of the Watergate debacle.”

Similarly, sources close to Trump have told Jonathan Swan of Axios that Trump is seeking a “great man” moment. “He came into office thinking he could be the historic deal maker to bring peace to the Middle East,” Swan argues. “He’s stopped talking about that. There’s very little point. The peace deal looks dead and cremated. But Trump wants to sign his name even larger into the history books, and he views North Korea as his moment.”

Kim is also hungry for a grand achievement to recast himself on the world stage, which is one reason to be hopeful about a genuine breakthrough and friendlier relations with North Korea. Writing in The Washington Post, Yonsei University political scientist John Delury contends that “Kim appears to be ready for serious bargaining now that he is in a strong domestic and international position. Technical success in North Korea’s weapons program helped to consolidate the foundations of power at home while also strengthening his bargaining position internationally.”

Kim, desperate to improve his economy, also seems willing to make concessions. North Korea has long insisted that the withdrawal of U.S. forces in South Korea be part of any nuclear deal, but South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced on Thursday that Kim is willing to accept the continued presence of the nearly 30,000 American troops there.

For all the similarities between Nixon and Trump in this regard, there are fundamental differences that look unfavorably on Trump. Nixon was an obsessive foreign policy architect. The seeds to the opening to China were already in place before Nixon became president. Trump, by contrast, is an improviser and indifferent to the details of foreign policy. His decision to agree to meeting Kim was made at the spur of the moment, taking his own administration by surprise.

In going to China, Nixon had both short-term and long-term plans. The short-term plan didn’t work out for either side: Nixon was not able to get China to put pressure on North Vietnam to end the war, nor did Mao get, as he wanted, a removal of American troops from Taiwan. But Nixon and Mao also had a broader vision. Both wanted an alliance to balance their shared rival, the Soviet Union. In this, they succeeded, making the opening to China a lasting success.

It’s unlikely Trump has such a long-term agenda. By all accounts, he wants a quick victory to show his mastery of the art of the deal. As a source close to Trump told Axios, “There are important strategic considerations ... but he also very much conceives it as a test of wills and of a contest of one man and another. How they’re going to react, how they’re going to shadow box with each other, and ultimately how they’re going to choose to act.”

The problem with viewing the summit as a “contest” is that it becomes a zero-sum game that could easily fall apart, the way Trump’s many domestic negotiations have done. There are more than a few sticking points, not least the denuclearization of North Korea, that defy easy solutions. If Trump is looking for an immediate and resounding victory, he almost surely will be disappointed. Perhaps that’s why he’s already broached the possibility of backing out. “If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go,” he said on Wednesday. “If the meeting, when I’m there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.”

Nixon went to China. Trump might not even make it as far as Sweden.