President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast, February 25, 1972.
Photo courtesy the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
Why would an American president visit the erratic leader of a murderous Asian communist regime that had a long record of aggression toward its neighbors and threatened us with nuclear-tipped missiles?
Richard Nixon did it to reduce the direct threat of war and gain indirect strategic advantages. Donald Trump proposes to do it for pretty much the same reasons.
Although it is probably hard for younger people to imagine, China in 1972 was much like North Korea today: destitute, backward, isolated, threatening and fratricidal. Nixon stunned the world when he announced plans to travel there to meet Mao Zedong (not coincidentally, near the start of his 1972 re-election campaign), just as Trump shocked Americans and allies by confirming that he has agreed to a meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
When Nixon first disclosed plans for his trip in 1971, China was midway through the Cultural Revolution. Mao launched that exercise in radical chaos to consolidate his power, which had been weakened after his 1958-60 collectivist “Great Leap Forward” consigned millions of Chinese, mostly the peasant proletariat in whose name he ruled, to starvation. The Cultural Revolution led to the deaths of another 1.5 million and the imprisonment of millions more before it ended with Mao’s death in 1976.
Expectations were low and perceived risks were high for Nixon’s visit. Immediate results beyond publicity were hard to discern. China’s unstable politics did not settle down until after Mao’s death and the subsequent defeat of the “Gang of Four” radicals, including Mao’s widow, by Deng Xiaoping. Deng normalized relations with the United States (after Washington’s concession to stop recognizing the rival government in Taipei as China’s legitimate representative). Deng also put China on a path toward economic liberalization, and thus set the stage for China’s rise to global prominence at the start of the 21st century.
Nixon did succeed in getting China to tone down its support for the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi, paving the way for the final U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam the following year. He also gained a stronger “China card” to play against the Soviet Union in arms control and other diplomatic matters. Ultimately, the risk of outright war with both communist powers was reduced, as Nixon said he intended. American and Chinese troops had clashed in the Korean War in the 1950s; U.S. and Soviet forces nearly went to war over the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Just a decade later, Nixon’s diplomatic overture, shepherded by national security adviser Henry Kissinger, had lowered the military temperature enough to reduce the risk of the Cold War turning hot during the Yom Kippur War between Arab states and Israel in 1973.
Similarly, there is no reason to expect quick and dramatic results from any meeting between Trump and Kim, assuming these two unpredictable heads of state ever actually meet. The chances that Kim can be talked into abandoning his nuclear and missile programs are, from all indications, virtually zero. But multiple rounds of Trump administration sanctions, some with and some without international support, have notably cut into North Korea’s resources; recent actions targeting Kim’s Chinese enablers seem to have been particularly effective. Kim has reasons for meeting Trump that go beyond wanting to get a grip-and-grin souvenir.
More likely than not, this is just the classic North Korean gambit of raising the danger level through conspicuous military action and issuing dire verbal threats, then – when financial consequences start to kick in – offering to make agreements to halt its destabilizing behavior North Korea then breaks those agreements as the cycle renews itself. Trump is certainly aware of this history.
The one thing that would truly eliminate the risk of war on the Korean peninsula – a North Korean regime change, particularly one that could lead to reunification under a peaceful government – is the last thing many of our other foreign adversaries want to see. Pyongyang is a valued partner in the arms trade to Iran and its clients across the Middle East. China does not want a U.S.-friendly Korea on its border, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia finds it useful to have American intelligence and military resources diverted to Asia, rather than focused on its borders with Europe. Many actors will be working under the table to prop up Kim. Dramatic change in the status quo is not the likely outcome of a summit, especially in the short term.
On the other hand, it is hard to see how the risk of violent conflict could get substantially higher if Trump and Kim resort to name-calling face-to-face rather than via media and the internet. If nothing else, Trump may leave Kim with the impression that he is, in fact, willing to use military force in Korea rather than allow Kim to threaten Los Angeles with nuclear annihilation. As Trump has already noted, the United States is prepared to ensure that Kim himself will not live to see the end of such a conflict. Kim can’t say the same to Trump. In a clash of narcissists, this would give Trump the advantage.
As with all things Trump, nothing is ever a done deal until a deal is done (and that means carried out). For the North Koreans, no deal has ever truly been done, period – which is why the Korean War is technically still happening.
A Trump visit could end up being a game-changer, even if nothing seems to come of it immediately. It certainly looks like his Nixon-to-China moment.