Donald Trump’s second meeting with Kim Jong Un did little to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula: Trump decided to walk away rather than end all U.S. sanctions on North Korea. Deal or no deal, the meeting was a remarkable moment for Kim. Trump hailed him as a “great leader” and a “friend.” The president said that he believed Kim when the Korean leader told him that “he felt very badly” about the untimely death of American student Otto Warmbier, who was released to the United States from North Korean captivity in 2017 only to die a week later. Warmbier’s family claim he was tortured; Trump said that he took Kim’s word that he “didn’t know about” Warmbier’s treatment.
Trump’s rapprochement with North Korea, and in particular his chummy meetings with the country’s leader, have done much to launder Kim’s international image as the leader of one of the most repressive states in the world. Trump’s statements in Hanoi, and earlier comments that he and Kim “fell in love,” have raised eyebrows in Washington. An anonymous New York Times editorial, apparently penned by a senior administration official, cited Trump’s treatment of Kim as further proof of Trump’s “preference for autocrats and dictators” and his lack of “appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.”
But this is not the first time that a sitting U.S. president has recast a long-standing foe as a “great leader” and “friend.” Richard Nixon did exactly the same with Mao Zedong — to great applause at home. Mao’s 1949 communist revolution had been followed by China’s intervention in the bloody Korean War, in which more than 50,000 Americans died — many in battles with the Chinese. But two decades later, Nixon warmly shook hands with Mao in another surprise East Asian summit and showed reverence to the chairman as a historic leader and grand statesman. Soon, Mao and his country were one of the closest international partners of the United States: just a year later, Henry Kissinger said that only the United Kingdom was closer to Washington in how they saw the world. Privately, Nixon even believed that he and Mao were kindred spirits — an idea encouraged by the chairman himself in their private meeting.
Nixon’s treatment of Mao was the first step toward the creation of a liberal myth about China and the U.S. relationship with the country. Nixon and his successors claimed that the People’s Republic was run by statesmen who wanted peace with the United States and to modernize their country. Already by 1984, Ronald Reagan was calling China that “so-called Communist country.” From Jimmy Carter through Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, U.S. leaders talked loudly of promoting human rights and democracy around the world — while looking the other way as Chinese leaders led a powerfully autocratic regime that showed little inclination toward political reform.
These leaders did not merely omit China from speeches about renegade regimes around the world; they made important policy decisions, too. Carter concluded the rapprochement with Beijing that Nixon began by formally recognizing the PRC as the only legitimate Chinese government in 1979. He did so at the very same moment a Democracy Wall Movement showed popular Chinese aspirations for elected government. We now know that Carter consciously declined to respond to the protesters’ direct appeals to the American president, fearful that doing so would disrupt his diplomatic negotiations with the Chinese. In the wake of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, a newly elected Clinton promised to tie U.S.-China trade to Beijing’s human rights record. He never did.
This China myth was of enormous historical importance. In 1980, the U.S. government made China the first communist state to be awarded Most Favored Nation status, which paved the way for a deluge of Chinese exports to the American market — and to sky-high growth rates for China’s economy. We are only now beginning to feel the full economic and political consequences of that decision.
More tragically, the U.S. government peddled the idea that China was liberalizing before but also after Beijing turned its guns on its own youth at Tiananmen. If there was evidence of political reform in China before 1989, there hardly was after — and, yet, president after president propounded the myth that capitalism and trade would bring democracy to China. It hasn’t, and the United States has now missed the chance to use the significant leverage and influence it had over Chinese leaders to push for change. Even if they had, of course, that change may not have come. Regardless, U.S. leaders are also responsible for lying to their own people about why Washington maintained its relationship with Beijing: Because of their commitment to maintaining perpetual growth based on liberalized global trade, not because trade would bring democracy to China. Trump himself capitalized on the fallout of that lie in 2016, repeatedly attacking the impact of China’s easy access to the U.S. market on American jobs and salaries and asking what the authoritarian regime in Beijing had done for the United States in return for the American role holding the door open for China’s development.
The liberal China myth proved remarkably resilient, but it may finally have died. Xi Jinping’s constitutional amendment to make himself eligible to lead China indefinitely — for life, perhaps — and the mass imprisonment of as many as a million Muslims in the country’s far west have been powerful reminders that China is becoming more, not less, authoritarian while it grows economically. The myth survived previous evidence of repression, however — so perhaps what has truly changed in recent years is that China has unquestionably become a competitor to the United States, economically and strategically. U.S. leaders, even before Trump, may have finally reconsidered the wisdom of facilitating China’s rise. Either way, the deception of the China myth lasted nearly 50 years.
Trump is unlikely to be as audacious as to claim that his rapprochement with Kim will bring democracy to North Korea. A resurrection of a version of this liberal myth — now for North Korea — is not unthinkable, however. The breaking point in the negotiations in Hanoi was Kim’s request that the United States lift all economic sanctions on his country. Kim is prepared to negotiate on his nuclear program to end these sanctions because he believes that economic growth is critical to the long-term survival of his regime. Some leading Korea-watchers believe that the country is achieving steady economy growth through limited privatization — in precisely the mold that China did in the 1980s and 1990s. North Korea is minerally rich, and has a cheap labor force that could attract jobs away from higher wage economies — not least China’s. Trade and outside investment could accelerate growth and bring prosperity to the north of the peninsula.
Like China’s Deng Xiaoping, Kim is pursuing this growth precisely to keep his communist regime in power. Not only is he against meaningful political liberalization, he believes that economic wealth can strengthen his authoritarianism. Nonetheless, the historical record of U.S. self-deception about China suggests that American leaders are capable of ignoring such facts. If further agreements do bring a deeper rapprochement between North Korea and the outside world, then there is every chance that these leaders will argue that encouraging economic growth in North Korea is the best recipe for unseating Kim and his clique.
Nixon’s treatment of Mao was not unique. Throughout the Cold War, but also into our time, U.S. politicians have repeatedly shown themselves unwilling to cast their treatment of dictators and autocrats in transactional terms. Instead, they have presented marriages of convenience made for geostrategic reasons as meetings of minds — even of friends. Trump said he would be different, that he would be guided by American interests first, and sentiment last. Even he, however, has been unable to call Kim a ruthless dictator while he negotiates with him.
The United States is an unusual superpower. Since 1945, American presidents have enjoyed unprecedented and nearly peerless levels of global power. The hegemony they have sought to exercise across the world has necessitated relationships with regimes of all different stripes. But the self-perceived moral mission and superiority of the United States has prevented an honest appraisal of many of these relationships. Instead, figures like Kim and Mao, decried as dangerous lunatics one moment, are quickly recast as honest men and worthy friends of the United States. As Trump works to build peace with Pyongyang, Americans should be careful not to again be fooled by the myths that stem from this contradictory role in the world.
Dr. Pete Millwood is an LSE Fellow in East Asian History at the London School of Economics. His first book, a transnational history of the U.S.-China rapprochement of the 1970s, has the working title “Below the Summit: How Acrobats, Basketball Players and Biologists Remade US-China Relations, 1969-1978.” He tweets @PeteMillwood.