Much as I hate to say it, Donald Trump may be playing a winning hand in foreign policy. His two trump cards, as it were, have pictures of Kim and Xi on them.
Kim Jong-un, it seems, may just be ready to sit at a negotiating table and, once seated, may even be ready to talk about a de-nuclearised North Korea. Or so I keep reading in the papers these days. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State in waiting, has even gone to Pyongyang, and not as part of some routine cultural exchange. The summit is on. My guess is that Kim has finally realised, probably with a little discreet prodding from China, that his country’s isolation cannot be maintained forever, and that if China imposes sanctions they will hurt badly enough to cause stirrings of unrest among the bien pensant classes of Pyongyang. I imagine Kim and his nice lady, whose name I’ve forgotten, are probably chatting over the dinner table even now about how nice it might be to get off the peninsular for a change, see a bit of the world – dine on the Seine in Paris, like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade, meet the Queen, the guards saluting them as they arrive at Buckingham Palace in a gold coach, see the Grand Canyon and get to play a little blackjack in Vegas ….
Then there is the great dragon of the East itself. When Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese imports, he triggered outrage in diplomatic circles and terrified talk on Wall Street of a damaging trade war. The stock market fell out of bed, but only for a day or two. It soon climbed back in because China’s response, far from warlike, not even aggressive, was downright pathetic. Mr Xi, newly-elected leader for life, tried to look stern but failed. His was the sheepish look of a boy who’s finally been identified as the thief who’s been stealing the cookies all along.
Trump is on to a winner with both of them, Kim and Xi.
If he gets Kim to give up his nuclear toys and join the international community of nations, then he has achieved an unqualified triumph. If, on the other hand, and equally likely, Kim reneges on his promise to attend talks, or does attend but fails to deliver any policy change of substance, then Trump can claim that he tried – “Lord knows, I tried”, I hear him saying through those pursed Cupid’s bow lips – and the failure has all been Kim’s.
China knows that it has been caught dealing from the bottom of the deck on trade. Xi knows that America has always known. He also knows that Trump sees punishing China as a vote-winner ‘out there’ in America’s rusting heartlands – and that is much more important than a few cosy weekends with the nice Mr and Mrs Xi at Mar-a-Lago.
Does all this make Trump a genius? Not to the manner born. Trump is no intellectual giant – as I think even his friends and allies can agree, let alone his enemies – but he has the New York City street fighter’s awareness of what his opponents are up to and how far he can push them. If that springs less from brain power than from gut instinct, it is no less effective for that.
By no stretch of imagination or good will can Trump be called a calculating genius, but on Asia he may just turn out to be an accidental one. Let us all hope so.
Funny old world, isn’t it?