by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump are set to meet in Singapore on June 12. Since hearing the talk of a rendezvous between the two heads of state, I’ve been thinking about Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao Zedong in China in 1972. Nixon was the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China, and although the U.S. and China did not establish formal relations until 1979, Nixon’s visit set the process of normalization in motion. Limiting nuclear arms proliferation was among Nixon’s motivations for reaching out to Mao, along with his hope that friendlier relations with China would help Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. U.S. diplomatic engagement with the PRC angered American allies Taiwan and Japan, but it allowed the Americans to pressure the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons and was a clear example of détente between the U.S. and Communist countries.
On a surface level, it’s easy to compare Nixon’s visit to China with the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Trump, like Nixon, presents himself as vastly different from his predecessor, particularly in that he is willing to make aggressive moves toward eventual peace. Nixon ran his 1968 presidential campaign on the promise to end the Vietnam War, a product of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, if not Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to destroy ISIS and pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear weapons deal. Both Nixon and Trump resolved to meet with brutal authoritarian leaders, Mao and Kim. For both presidents, negotiating with the leaders of enemy or rogue states was acceptable if they believed doing so was in the U.S. national interest. Scandal hovers over Trump’s presidency as it did over Nixon’s. The “White House Plumbers” began their machinations in the summer of 1971; Trump faces all sorts of allegations, from knowledge or worse of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election to paying off adult film actress Stormy Daniels to deny that the two had an affair. On the cultural front, ping-pong diplomacy was part of the Nixon-Mao meeting, and the 2018 Winter Olympics featured a joint North and South Korean women’s hockey team.
The contextual differences between the Nixon and Trump presidencies limit the usefulness of such comparisons, and analysts already disagree about the extent to which we can compare Nixon’s China moment with Trump’s overtures to North Korea. Political scientists Michaela Mattes and Jessica L.P. Weeks argue that the comparison makes sense. Nixon’s established anti-communist record made voters trust his diplomatic advances toward China, while a dovish president likely would have faced harsh criticism from the American public for seeking peace with an enemy nation. Political adversaries might accuse a dove president of being “soft” on Communism or whatever the enemy state’s perceived evil was. Mattes and Weeks believe that Trump’s hawkish rhetoric has positioned him to retain legitimacy among his political base as he reaches out to a rogue state like North Korea. On the other side of the debate, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake asserts that Trump’s upcoming meeting with Kim will not be the president’s “Nixon to China” moment. Lake writes that China was a Cold War power, and the tensions between China and the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War made the Nixon visit monumental. Conversely, North Korea is a weak, isolated state that depends on China for its survival. A meeting between Trump and Kim will not produce the kind of international ripple effect that Nixon’s China trip did, Lake concludes.
Yet here, again, is the importance of context. North Korea is not a great power, and so at face value, Trump’s planned meeting with Kim Jong-un might seem insignificant compared to Nixon’s visit with Mao. But the international context of 2018 is much different than that of 1972. The contemporary moment is not one in which great power antagonisms shape international relations. Terrorist networks and rogue states with nuclear capabilities pose some of the primary threats to global security. In the context of the early twenty-first century, a meeting that leads to the opening of the Hermit Kingdom and the limiting, or even dismantling, of its nuclear arsenal could provide a blueprint for future diplomatic engagements with isolated states. As historians in the coming decades assess Trump’s foreign policy record, they will let us know whether “Trump to North Korea” was a transformative moment in the history of international relations or a forgettable example of contrarian attention-seeking.
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).