(June 7, 2018)
“North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un just stated that the ‘nuclear button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my button works!” Thus tweeted Donald Trump on January 2nd, 2018. Many policy wonks dubbed it a dangerous brinkmanship. But as if that was not enough more was soon to come.
On January 13th the residents of Hawaii received a chilling emergency alert notification on the cell phones. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” it read. It took the authorities in the US state 38 minutes to inform the residents that there was no missile inbounds. Donald Trump was playing golf at the time. And the world was unaware of how close it had come to a nuclear conflict.
On June 12th Donald J Trump and Kim Jong-un are slated to meet at Capella Hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa Island. This meeting between America’s impulsive and unpredictable president and young and the equally volatile leader of North Korea is expected to take place at around 6am Pakistan Standard Time. While the administration in Washington, DC, tries to manage expectations, some big development is expected from the summit. In a remarkable gesture North Korea has already dismantled its nuclear test site in a pompous ceremony. This is the same country that until a few months ago was test-firing missiles left right and centre.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. The leaders of the two Koreas have met more than once. Kim has met the Chinese president twice. Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director and now the US secretary of state, is said to have put a lot of effort in making the meeting between Trump and Kim possible. Now that we know the meeting will indeed take place can we be confident that something as big as the denuclearisation of the peninsula may finally materialise? Judging by the astonishing turn of events that seems a distinct possibility. North Korea has remained pariah of the international order for a long time. The Seth Rogen starrer The Interview was correct on one count at least: This isolation has caused immense poverty in the country and the North Korea of today may want it to end.
If that is the expectation, no matter how far-fetched, from the summit, what is the expectation of Trump supporters in the United States? They made it clear in a recent rally held at Michigan sports complex. Speaking on the occasion when Trump broached the subject of peace between the two Koreas his audience erupted into chants of ‘Nobel, Nobel’. Wait, what? Nobel Peace Prize for Trump?
If you have been viewing Trump’s policies through the prism of American media this must make even less sense. Trump has often been accused of being a racist, a bigot, anti-Muslim, anti-Semite among many other things. On occasions he has acted in a fashion that lends credence to such rumours. On other he has not. If you truly want to know who Trump is, you need to piece together the bits of insights and clues about his personality from various sources. Such insights are scattered all over the place in the shape of his shows, references in books written before he decided to run for public office and his interviews given during those times. When you look at the profile that emerges you realise he is nothing more or less than a crafty businessman. Of course, your choices and the company you keep matters when you are in power and cannot be divorced from the reality. But for a businessman-turned-politician that also reflects on his perception of his audience, his client. Trump thinks he was elected to shake things up; to bring just enough mad touch to the system that things start lining up. And that is what he has been doing.
I often recommend Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish’s Trump Revealed, to my friends and audience. It is an authoritative work. And while there are weak moments in the story where you feel all your fears about the man are about to be confirmed, there are others where you see a vulnerable and often well-intentioned person trying to do the right thing for the people who matter to him. His own ghost-written book Trump: The Art of the Deal is quite illuminating. So is the content of The Apprentice, the show he hosted for a long time.
But there is one passage in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury that probably defines him the best: “Trump was not a politician who could parse factions of support and opprobrium; he was a salesman who needed to make a sale. “I won. I am the winner. I am not the loser,” he repeated, incredulously, like a mantra. Bannon described Trump as a simple machine. The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door. This was the nature of Trump’s particular salesmanship. His strategic belief was that there was no reason not to heap excessive puffery on a prospect. But if the prospect was ruled out as a buyer, there was no reason not to heap scorn and lawsuits on him or her. After all, if they don’t respond to sucking up, they might respond to piling on.”
When seen in the light of this passage the North Korean summit gamble becomes so simple. Kim is the potential buyer. Denuclearisation and stabilisation of the Korean Peninsula is the sale. And the Nobel Prize, by way of the acknowledgment the ultimate prize. If Kim plays nicely, he may also be able to get some piece of that action. Of course, failure is also an option. But somehow Trump seems eerily close to both his goals.
Is there a lesson somewhere in here? I think there is. Trump thrives on the old system of reward and punishment. When he does something wrong, censure him. When he does something right, reward him. He is the blunt instrument of diplomacy that seems to be working. If he wins now, there is a chance that the desire to make new records may lead him to the resolution of Kashmir and Palestinian disputes as well. Imagine the scope of such possibilities. We are already talking about the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula which is no mean feat. Here’s to fresh starts, impossible feats of diplomacy and prizes.