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Dual showmanship

Bhopinder Singh |

The element of audacity and implications of the recent Trump-Kim summit in Singapore can only be equated with the Nixon-Mao moment of 1972. While the former sought to allay portents of a very real nuclear holocaust, the latter had successfully thawed the Cold War freeze in a sizeable part of the Communist bloc.

In both the landmark events, erstwhile pariahs harmonised their bitter relations, in a deliberately choreographed style of showmanship that was designed to amplify the moment for posterity. President Richard Nixon had prophetically described the unprecedented summit with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong as, “the week that changed the world”.

With equal fanfare, Donald Trump stated that “Chairman Kim has before him the opportunity to be remembered as the leader who ushered in a glorious new era of security and prosperity”. In 1972, Mr Trump was a 26-year-old rookie who had just earned his category ‘4-F’ medical deferment that had rendered him ‘not qualified for service’. North Korea was then ruled by Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the present leader, Kim Jong-un, who was born much later in 1984.

The drama preceding the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore included multiple flip-flops, public cancellation and whimsical dynamics that essentially differentiated the quality of leadership involved in this surreal summit of immense potential and matching risks… vis-à-vis the seasoned American politician, Richard Nixon, and the founder of Communist China, Chairman Mao Zedong. Both Nixon and Mao were hardnosed pragmatic leaders and strategically calculating.

They recognized the enormity, complexity and maturity required in the post-summit stage, after the initial hoopla and flashlights of the shutterbugs had subsided. Even the ‘wingmen’ on the sidelines of the 1972 rapprochement summit had included heavyweights, pre-eminently the realpolitik-guru Henry Kissinger on the one hand and the skillful diplomat, Zhou Enlai on the other. This is in sharp contrast to what has happened now.

While President Trump was assisted by the recently appointed US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, there was no leader of much consequence on the North Korean side. In keeping with the bombast of both the US and the North Korean leaders, the optics did not relate much to the Korean peninsula. Of riveting interest was the possibility of two leaders individually ‘achieving the impossible’.

The hi-falutin joint statement following the Singapore summit has not mentioned the exact details and specifics of the way forward. Nonetheless, it marks the beginning of a crucial engagement that will test the post-summit behaviour, language and patience of both President Trump and President Kim, neither of whom have had a track record of measured, calibrated or patient engagement.

The sensitive part of mutual concessions that any agreement of this sort necessitates, will entail managing the domestic constituency and specifically the cadres, who till now have been fed with a degree of muscular tonality and position that will certainly involve compromises.

It is not just the very personal barbs ~ such as calling each other, ‘little rocket man’, ‘mentally deranged US dotard’, ‘maniac sitting there’ etc. ~ but overcoming the temperamental and impulsive reactions that could be teased and invoked as the tricky process of reciprocal ‘freeze for freeze’. This would make it imperative for the US-led bloc to freeze the military exercises and in return the North Koreans to freeze the missile tests.

However, the Korean imbroglio is not just about the US and North Korea; it directly impacts the South Koreans, Japanese and the Chinese. The arbitrary style of President Trump has already rattled his allies in Seoul and Tokyo. The reported concession of immediately stalling military exercises was supposedly done on the spur of the moment by Mr Trump, without aligning the wary South Koreans or the Japanese.

Even the brash and boorish behaviour of President Trump, just a couple of days before the Singapore summit at the G-7 meeting, where he lambasted the ostensible ally, notably, Canada’s Prime Minister. The North Koreans would be paranoid about the fate to which the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was doomed. He had to give up the nuclear programme under a deal.

To that can be added Mr Trump’s unilateral decision to abrogate the nuclear deal with Iran. Predictably, the independent press has been in the firing line of Trump’s angst as probing questions on the deal were couched in a bitter tweet, “So funny to watch fake news, especially NBC and CNN. They are fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea. Our country’s biggest enemy is fake news so easily promulgated by fools!”

History, the recent track record and basic instincts of the key players involved in both Washington and Pyongyang unfortunately suggests a tenuous engagement.

The potential outcome of the Trump-Kim summit is indeed ‘a story of opportunity’ ~ the title of the 4-minute video that Trump shared with Kim. But as the 1972 Nixon-Mao summit suggests, a mature and sincere spirit was somehow missing in Singapore.

Presciently, Richard Nixon had remarked that he was under no illusions that, “twenty years of hostility between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America are going to be swept away by one week of talks that we will have there”.

Today, the Chinese do have a working relationship with the US, albeit with its own natural variations that are inevitable when two sovereign interests meet. India would be keenly watching the US concessions, reconciliation and actions in America’s dealings with North Koreans.

A similar pattern in any future ‘deal’ would be inevitable to rein in any other rogue state with nuclear capabilities, notably Pakistan. Mao had once warned of a leadership that was, “Swollen in head, weak in legs, sharp in tongue, but empty in stomach”!

The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.