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Why Donald Trump is winning on North Korea

North Koreans watch as their country's most famous

North Koreans watch as their country's most famous newscaster announces leader Kim Jong Un's proposal to suspend nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. Credit: AP / Cha Song Ho

President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is an outside-the-box idea that breaks with decades of U.S. policy — but it just might work, as evidenced by Friday’s announcement that North Korea would halt its nuclear weapons testing, though some experts have expressed significant skepticism about that announcement. In fact, it is the most presidential action we have seen from a president known for behaving more like a celebrity than a commander in chief.

The act of meeting face-to-face with another world leader is known as personal diplomacy. Trump joins a long line of presidents who have engaged in unorthodox personal diplomacy to cultivate influence with particularly difficult rogue leaders. Taken as a whole, personal diplomacy has yielded mixed results. Simply reaching out to one’s enemy (or, in Trump’s case, responding to a gesture) does not guarantee success. Rather, this type of diplomacy hinges on flexibility and patience, and demands a pragmatic understanding of and approach to the rogue leader’s needs.

During the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations followed different approaches to the same rogue leader — Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. This led to two very different results, and these different results demonstrate the opportunities and limitations of personal diplomacy.

Nasser rose to power in 1952 by overthrowing Egypt’s British-installed constitutional monarchy, and he jealously guarded his nationalist revolution from outside powers. Tensions emerged between him and President Dwight D. Eisenhower after Nasser sought to topple several U.S. allies in the region, leading Eisenhower to see Nasser as an expansionist and Soviet client who needed to be contained, not engaged.

But President John F. Kennedy and his aides perceived Nasser differently. Robert Komer, Kennedy’s national security adviser on the Middle East, encouraged Kennedy to reset relations with Nasser - a bold move, considering Nasser was referred to by U.S. policymakers as “Hitler on the Nile.” Komer saw Eisenhower’s approach as “rigid and moralistic,” and incompatible “with the realities of life in the third (i.e. neutralist) areas.” He believed leaders like Nasser could be encouraged to adopt pro-Western policies (or at least not anti-Western ones) if they felt the relationship was genuine and stable. Thus he advised Kennedy to court Nasser through economic aid and to develop a personal relationship with him.

Kennedy agreed, believing that because Nasser was the leader of the most powerful Arab country and had unmatched popularity in the Arab world, engaging him personally and appreciating his needs were necessary to contain the Arab-Israeli conflict and to avoid any appearance of favoring one side over the other. To that end, he offered friendship to Nasser rather than animosity.

Kennedy saw the pragmatic benefit of maintaining good relations with “neutralists” like Nasser - the proud nationalist leaders of smaller countries that ostensibly refused to take sides in the Cold War. To that end, Kennedy’s brand of personal diplomacy consisted of regularly communicating through letters, as well as carefully choosing ambassadors for their perceived ability to strike up a relationship with difficult leaders. Kennedy also sought to help Nasser deal with his particular concerns. Kennedy believed this approach was the key to preventing diplomatic crises.

Under Komer’s urging, the United States established an unprecedented three-year food aid agreement with Egypt in 1962. The deal gave Nasser a level of comfort knowing that his food requirements, which were subject to regular shortages due to Egypt’s outdated agricultural system and chronic ecological disasters, would be satisfied. At the same time, the United States promised to respect Egypt as an independent, nonaligned nation. The intended benefit of this relationship was to give the United States the ability to influence Nasser’s behavior.

For a time, the Kennedy-Komer policy worked. To continue receiving aid and maintain good relations with the United States, Nasser kept Arab-Israeli tensions “in the icebox” (as officials phrased it in their memos).

However, even with U.S. aid in place, Nasser became consumed by a costly proxy war against Saudi Arabia for control of Yemen. That war was dubbed “Nasser’s Vietnam” because it became a quagmire and drained Egypt’s resources. At the same time, Nasser held summits with Arab leaders to discuss future actions against Israel. Kennedy and advisers such as Komer had expected these types of difficulties with Nasser and believed he could be gently guided toward moderation over time.

Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, however, had a different view of foreign affairs. In his eyes, engaging neutralists through personal diplomacy was a gift from a powerful nation like the United States, not a requirement. Moreover, he resented leaders like Nasser because, in his words, they treated the United States like a “rich uncle.”

But what Johnson seemingly did not appreciate was that the growth of nationalism since World War I made every nation determined to guard its independence from would-be empires. And though the United States was not, in fact, an empire, Soviet propaganda effectively painted it as one to the neutralists. Kennedy understood this, which is why he believed personal diplomacy was important for maintaining communication with rogue leaders who could damage U.S. interests. The absence of personal diplomacy in Johnson’s approach, by contrast, made him appear untrustworthy, or even worthy of contempt in the eyes of neutralists.

Morally, Johnson had never agreed with the strategy of engaging Nasser, whom he viewed as reprehensible. He therefore let the food aid arrangement with Egypt expire and stopped any personal diplomacy. When Nasser’s requests for aid went unanswered, the Egyptian leader became agitated and lashed out at Johnson in speeches. He accused Johnson of seeking to topple him by “starving” Egypt and even claimed that the CIA wanted to assassinate him. Rather than fix the problem, Johnson let it fester by keeping Nasser at arm’s length.

Nasser’s response was to unfreeze the Arab-Israeli conflict — the very thing he knew America did not want him to do. After Johnson ended the personal diplomacy and food aid, Nasser saw nothing to lose by attacking Israel. In fact, he saw it as the best alternative to directly attacking the United States. Nasser wanted vengeance for what he considered Johnson’s insult toward him. As tensions started to escalate in the Middle East, Johnson’s administration could not effectively intercede, because it no longer had any meaningful line of communication with Nasser.

These different approaches demonstrate the opportunities and limits of personal diplomacy. Kennedy and his advisers may have been too idealistic about being able to fundamentally change a leader like Nasser, but their strategy did give them influence with him. Johnson, however, didn’t appreciate that this influence probably helped keep a partial lid on the Arab-Israeli conflict, because it made Nasser think about what he might lose if he took drastic action against Israel.

While the continuation of personal diplomacy may not have tempered Nasser’s ultimate decision, it would have made that decision more complex and helped Nasser better think through the risk of his actions. Johnson could have used his influence either to mitigate or eliminate Nasser’s desire for vengeance or to cajole him into deciding that acting wasn’t worth the cost.

Ultimately, Nasser, like Kim today, bears total responsibility for his decision-making. But by eliminating personal diplomacy, Johnson sacrificed any chance of influencing his choices.

There is a lesson in this for Trump ahead of his meeting with Kim. Meeting with Kim could be a good first step toward developing a personal relationship with a formidable rogue leader. But to continue the momentum and ensure a successful relationship, Trump will need to offer incentives to North Korea - a far cry from his desire for lopsided victories. More importantly, once a relationship is developed, Trump must consistently tend to it or risk a return to conflict - as the United States learned with Nasser in 1967.

Trump needn’t share Kennedy and Komer’s idealism to succeed. But sharing their appreciation for cultivating personal relationships to head off future potential conflicts could mean the difference between his winning a Nobel Peace Prize or having an unwanted war in Asia.

Glickman is an adjunct professor of history and is currently writing a world history book provisionally titled, “The Rise and Fall of World History: Avoiding Historical Amnesia in 21st Century Classrooms.”