Washington – Around the world, the novel coronavirus is mercilessly exposing bad policies and bad institutions. Events of recent weeks have also laid bare the limitations of U.S. President Donald Trump’s trademark personal diplomacy, with events in North Korea the latest example. Although it is unclear what exactly is happening with the health of Kim Jong Un, it is all too clear that Trump’s direct outreach to him has failed.
In this and other cases, Trump has taken to an extreme the long American tradition of hoping that close personal relationships between leaders can cut through the complexities of fraught diplomatic relationships between countries. Yet that approach has proved disappointing if not counterproductive on many fronts at once. Personal diplomacy can, in the right circumstances, be a force multiplier. It is, in the wrong circumstances, an exercise in delusion.
Trump is hardly the first president to put his faith in leader-to-leader relations and the power of his own personality.
Franklin D. Roosevelt excluded the State Department from dealings with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War II, insisting that he alone could allay the suspicions and secure the cooperation of the Soviet tyrant. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both built strong relationships with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in hopes of smoothing the path toward a peaceful end of the Cold War. Barack Obama believed that his background gave him a unique ability to repair America’s troubled relationship with the Islamic world.
Trump, who personalizes nearly everything, has taken this same approach and made it a defining theme of his statecraft.
He has sought to break through decades of U.S.-North Korea conflict by reaching out directly, through two summits and a series of “love letters,” to Kim. He and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have effectively personalized the relationship with Saudi Arabia by forging tight, protective relations, often conducted outside of normal diplomatic channels, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In early dealings with the Philippines and Turkey, Trump aimed to repair troubled partnerships by going straight to two leaders, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who shared some of his abrasive, populist tendencies. The U.S. president also repeatedly praised and sought to cultivate Chinese President Xi Jinping, even as Washington and Beijing fought a major trade skirmish, and the larger relationship spiraled downward.
Trump views personal diplomacy as a way of evading a national security bureaucracy he does not trust, and of working directly with decision-makers, particularly authoritarian leaders. In dealing with Xi and Erdogan, Trump probably sees some value in maintaining decent personal ties as ballast for increasingly unstable relationships. The approach also appeals to his vaunting self-regard and his image as the ultimate deal-maker.
The trouble is that history shows, and Trump’s presidency confirms, that personal diplomacy is no magic bullet. Diplomacy doesn’t ultimately hinge on how leaders feel about each other. It hinges on whether their countries’ interests align and what the fundamental power realities are.
The fact that Reagan and Bush eventually developed a degree of mutual trust with Gorbachev certainly helped them navigate the geopolitical rapids at the end of the Cold War. Yet Gorbachev was so friendly mostly because his country’s power was collapsing, and he desperately needed a respite from Western geopolitical and economic pressure.
Conversely, FDR’s wooing of Stalin is now seen as a case study in diplomatic naivete. There was simply no friendship to be won from a paranoid autocrat who was committed to the eventual destruction of the capitalist world. Personal diplomacy can work well as a complement to real leverage and strong diplomatic fundamentals; it cannot succeed as a substitute.
Trump is getting an education in these realities today. His praise for Duterte hasn’t prevented Manila from moving closer to Beijing or tearing up a key plank of the U.S.-Philippines military relationship. Kim’s health issues aside, the North Korean regime has recently ramped up missile tests; after Trump reportedly sent Kim a letter offering help in combating the coronavirus, North Korean officials publicly rejected the White House’s assertions that Kim had responded in kind.
Then there is Trump’s relationship with Xi. Even as Trump publicly lauded Xi in late January and February, the Chinese regime was covering up its catastrophic failure to confront the deadly epidemic before it spread, and preparing an absurd campaign to blame the U.S. military for creating a world-disrupting disease. There is nothing the least bit sentimental about the Chinese regime: Its leaders will do what they deem necessary to protect their power and undermine their enemies.
Trump has recently enjoyed one success of personal diplomacy: his brokering of a deal to reduce global oil production and thereby take pressure off American producers. Yet that deal primarily reflected a dawning recognition in Riyadh and Moscow that their ongoing price war threatened to devastate both countries economically. And it has so far done little to mitigate the havoc that fundamental geo-economic forces are wreaking on the global oil market.
Taking the longer view, Trump’s relationship with Mohammed bin Salman didn’t dissuade the Saudi crown prince from taking a series of dangerous steps — initiating a showdown with Qatar, allegedly ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and may actually have emboldened him to do so.
Likewise, the president’s efforts to strike up a bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin — most notably by parroting his talking points, rather than the U.S. intelligence community’s, at the Helsinki summit in 2018 — have not changed the trajectory of an adversarial relationship. They have, however, sown trans-Atlantic doubts about Trump’s intentions and his judgment.
There’s a lesson here, not just for Trump but for his successors as well. Changes at the top can sometimes result in larger diplomatic shifts: Whoever follows Duterte is unlikely to be as viscerally anti-American. If Kim is indeed incapacitated, there will be a period of flux in the U.S.-North Korea relationship.
But no amount of personal diplomacy will persuade Kim or his successor to do something — dismantle the nuclear program — that North Korean leaders believe would endanger the very survival of the regime. No amount of personal diplomacy will prevent that regime from pressing for advantage when it feels the need or opportunity to do so. And in the most important cases — U.S. relations with China and Russia — the problems we are experiencing today are the result not of misunderstandings or insufficient dialogue, but of profound geopolitical and ideological tensions that have been building for some time.
In these and other relationships, it is surely worth keeping communications open at the top, if only as a way of avoiding disastrous miscalculation. Yet it is also crucial to remember that these deep conflicts of interest are precisely the ones that personal diplomacy is least able to overcome.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”
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