The Art of the Summit
The whole world watched as U.S. President Donald J. Trump met with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore. Although President Trump declared it a “tremendous success,” it is unclear what concrete outcomes—if any—emerged from the summit. Over the last year and a half, President Trump has patted himself on the back for his numerous “deals,” but time and again, we are unsure of what he has truly accomplished. As the world attempts to understand President Trump’s strategy on issues as wide-ranging as rebalancing global trade and controlling immigration into the United States, it is worth looking back more than three decades to the publication of his book, The Art of the Deal, to analyze whether the approach he outlined then is still guiding him today. To what extent, for example, did the president apply the book’s eleven-step deal-making strategy to his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un? In this case, the answer seems to be: quite a bit.
The Eleven Steps
- Think big – Certainly, attempting to facilitate peace between a rogue state led by the “Little Rocket Man” and the United States, soon after North Korea developed nuclear weapons and threatened to use them, is thinking big.
- Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself – Trump attempted to inoculate himself against failure by repeating that denuclearization would be a long and drawn out process. A preemptive warning to the world that the first meeting could fall served to protect him from immediate failure.
- Maximize your options – By announcing the cancellation of the summit shortly before it was set to take place, President Trump made it clear that the United States considered summitry just one of many options, including continued multilateral sanctions and the threat of a preemptive strike against Pyongyang.
- Know your market –Although opinions are divided on whether President Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” actually brought Kim to the table, Trump maintains that economic pressure was a driving force. Heading into the summit believing that North Korea was ready to agree to joint statement, Trump and his team could have used this knowledge to tailor their approach.
- Use your leverage – President Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign,” involving economic sanctions and threats of preemptive strikes, at first seemed to escalate the already tense situation. However, these actions may have served as leverage before the summit. Before the meeting, Chairman Kim had already offered a complete freeze on missile testing and released three American prisoners.
- Enhance your location –Singapore was chosen to host the summit for a variety of reasons: its bilateral relations with both the United States and North Korea, sophisticated security and intelligence, and neutral location (in comparison to the DMZ). Choosing Singapore allowed both sides to feel more relaxed since North Koreans had previously been able to travel to Singapore without visas and the United States considers the nation a close security partner. Additionally, Singapore has proven its ability to host high-pressure, high-level summits in the past, including a 2015 landmark meeting between China’s President Xi and then-Taiwanese President Ma.
- Get the word out – The intense media coverage before, during, and after the summit meant that the president did not have to work hard to “get the word out.” By branding the summit as a success, he tried to control the post-summit narrative, proclaiming, “The World has taken a big step back from potential nuclear catastrophe! No more rocket launches, nuclear testing or research!” Although many criticized President Trump for offering to cancel military exercises with South Korea and failing to obtain any concrete concessions from Kim Jong-un, some believe that the summit was a promising first step. There is little dispute, however, that the word got out.
- Fight back – Throughout his first eighteen months in office, President Trump has adopted a bellicose stance and has stoked increasing tensions on just about every front. A few weeks before the summit, President Trump canceled the meeting after it appeared that the North Koreans might backtrack on denuclearization. Time and time again, President Trump has demonstrated a willingness to play hardball and break from the norm.
- Deliver the goods - As superficial as the summit’s result may be, no sitting U.S. president has met with North Korea’s leader since the nation’s founding in 1948, let alone reached a preliminary agreement on denuclearization. Still, President Trump has yet to deliver the goods—which could take years—and broke one of his own rules, by declaring that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat without any legal and enforceable commitment.
- Contain the costs - President Trump contained the costs by not over-promising on results beforehand. Nonetheless, he weakened an essential element of U.S. security and that of U.S. allies in East Asia by agreeing to cancel military exercises with South Korea and raising the potential that the United States would withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula. Of course, in the president’s mind, getting Singapore to pay for the costs of hosting the summit is probably a huge win!
- Have fun - President Trump certainly seemed to have fun, cracking jokes throughout the summit and even describing his time there as a “great three days.” Troublingly perhaps, he seemed to have more fun with Chairman Kim than he did with the other leaders of the free world at the G7.
Reflecting on the summit, did Trump practice the points he preached in The Art of The Deal? For the most part, the answer seems to be yes—but this is not necessarily a good thing. President Trump did achieve some level of discourse with Chairman Kim, but there has been intense scrutiny as to how he got it. Namely, canceling the U.S.-South Korean military exercises without obtaining concrete commitments from North Korea. Nonetheless, the results of the summit remain to be seen as the two governments work to achieve a concrete agreement, a lengthy process that won’t be accomplished in one meeting or one through a single “deal.”
Matson and Quint Schorr are rising seniors.