The Trump-Kim Summit Is No ‘Nixon to China’ Moment

The Trump administration lacks the prep work and personal involvement that made Nixon’s China trip a success.

The Trump-Kim Summit Is No ‘Nixon to China’ Moment
Credit: U.S. National Archives

After Donald Trump’s acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s offer to meet and discuss denuclearization and measures to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula, some have sought to compare this opportunity for the Trump administration to Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1972, which ushered in the détente period of the Cold War. Personal comparisons between the two presidents have been both positive and negative, with Jeffrey Lewis perhaps going the furthest when he stated, “It’s like Richard Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron.”

No doubt Nixon and Trump have much in common, from their “madman” strategies to their juicy scandals, but the two situations share few similar characteristics outside of the geographical location of the two countries and the tyrannical rule Mao Zedong and Kim Jong-un. A comparison of Nixon’s 1972 visit to China with Trump’s potential meeting with Kim reveals why the latter is likely to disappoint.

The first key difference between Nixon’s visit and Trump’s impending meeting is the preparation and pace at which these historic summits have progressed. As Jeffrey A. Bader points out, Nixon to China was the culmination of years of diplomatic efforts. Not only was Nixon’s visit in 1972 carefully prepared through extensive contacts between the United States and China, including a secret visit by Henry Kissinger to China a year ahead of Nixon in 1971, but Nixon himself had begun sending signals of his willingness to engage Communist China even before becoming president through his article in Foreign Affairs in 1967.

While Trump signaled his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un during his campaign, this was followed by countersignals during his presidency including calling the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man” and promising “fire and fury” if North Korea attempted any provocations. And while there have been rumblings of quiet, behind-the-scenes talks between the United States and North Korea, as in the U.S.-China case in the 1970s, conflicting reports have emerged as to just how much planning went into the decision to hold the Trump-Kim meeting. Regardless of which report is true, there is no doubt the Trump-Kim summit has involved significantly less preparation, which has resulted in a number of question marks leading up to the meeting. By contrast, Nixon knew precisely how his meeting with Mao would proceed.

The amount of preparation is also a direct reflection of the leader and team drafting the policy. While Nixon is said to have been a keen student of international relations, he also had Kissinger by his side. Trump is neither a student of international politics nor does he have a Kissinger in his administration. Worse, Trump has no ambassador in South Korea, his Special Representative for North Korea Policy Jospeh Yun just retired, and he recently fired his secretary of state. This has led some to wonder just who will hammer out the negotiating strategy and define U.S. interests in advance of the Trump-Kim summit.

Second, the interests being pursued by the Trump administration and those pursued by the Nixon administration are completely different. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration and China were seeking to balance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Once it became clear that China and the Soviet Union were not a part of a monolithic communist bloc, Nixon sought to warm relations with China. China, fresh out of a border skirmish with the Soviet Union in 1969, was open to U.S. overtures. As a result, the Shanghai Communique issued as a culmination of Nixon’s visit to China is remarkably simple and forged a base for continued efforts to build trust. No bargaining or haggling over specific programs or processes was required in Nixon’s case.

Trump, on the other hand, is expected to produce a deal during his meeting with Kim Jong-un, and this deal will have to straddle vast differences in the interests of North Korea and the United States. Kim’s first and foremost objective will be regime preservation. It is this interest that drove North Korea many years ago to begin developing nuclear weapons and some experts caution that North Korea will not bargain away this prize so easily. Yet, the first priority for the United States is the complete, irreversible, and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. If any deal is to be made during the Trump-Kim summit, one side will have to yield. And a Shanghai Communique-type document is unlikely to impress anybody given a long list of agreements and statements have already been made and broken. It is exactly this point that have led some to be less than optimistic about Trump’s chances at success. Nixon’s visit to China was more of a victory lap resulting from negotiations that had already succeeded, Trump’s summit with Kim is a gamble that his deal-making ability will prevail.

Finally, a significant difference between Nixon to China and Trump to North Korea (if the meeting is indeed held in Pyongyang) is that the former was the result of hard diplomatic work by the United States and the latter should actually be considered an achievement of South Korea. Before Nixon took his trip to China, the United States and the PRC had had no official contact for over 20 years, but Nixon had Kissinger secretly visit Zhou Enlai in 1971 to pave the way for his visit; the United States did not rely on a third country to mediate the talks. The initiative was a purely American one. U.S. officials had to carefully sell the move to South Korea while other allies, such as Japan, followed the path laid out for them by the Nixon administration. There was never a doubt that it was Washington who was driving the Western bloc’s rapprochement with China.

The current situation is quite different. It can be argued that South Korea is to thank for the stunning change in mood on the Korean Peninsula. While South Korea National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong was quick to credit Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy for having brought North Korea to the negotiating table, the fact is that a Trump-Kim summit (not to mention the upcoming inter-Korea summit) is a hard-fought victory for the Moon Jae-in administration, not Trump.

The South Korean government has held true to their strategy laid out in Moon’s July 2017 speech in Berlin: they have advocated the need for dialogue with North Korea while at the same time maintaining their commitment to sanctions, the U.S.-ROK alliance, and denuclearization. As a result, the inter-Korean summit and the U.S.-North Korea summit were agreed upon without South Korea or the United States having to lighten sanctions, cancel military exercises, or provide any sort of other pre-meeting benefits to North Korea. And it is a South Korean envoy shuttling back and forth between various stakeholders in North Korean denuclearization, not U.S. diplomats.

In other words, Nixon orchestrated his own visit to China in an attempt to restructure the world order to better suit U.S. interests. This gave him a deeper stake in the outcome as it was a direct reflection of him and his administration. Trump is more of a free-rider than he is an actor, taking credit for the results of South Korean diplomatic footwork when it suits him, and chastizing others for seeking to open negotiations when things do not pan out.

Can this be Trump’s “Nixon to China” moment? Perhaps eventually, but it’s unlikely to be recognized as such immediately after the Trump-Kim summit concludes. Not enough preparation has been done, North Korea and the United States are too far apart on what they hope to achieve, and whatever agreements are made, verification of North Korean denuclearization and a draft of a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War will take years to accomplish.

Nixon to China was a success thanks to the tireless preparation behind the scenes, the limited scope of talks and shared interests between the two parties, and that the fact that the endeavor was actually initiated and driven by Nixon himself. The Trump-Kim summit may be an important milestone in history if an agreement is struck, but this is far from a certainty.

Benjamin A. Engel is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies and holds an MA in Korean Studies from the same school.