The world could be a very different place soon, depending on how a conversation in Singapore turns out. Many people are comparing the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un with Nixon’s historic visit to China – and there are, to be sure, some similarities. Bedeviled by protesters at home, Richard Nixon’s trip to a China that had walled itself off to the world is seen by most historians as one of the most important diplomatic adventures ever undertaken by a US president – the opening up of what would come to be the world’s next superpower.
But as historian and diplomatic journalist Robin Wright suggests in her piece in the New Yorker, maybe a more apt comparison isn’t Nixon in China, but a lesser-known summit that at the time was seen as a dismal failure.
It was the mid 80s. Amid the freeze of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev traveled to Iceland to talk about nuclear disarmament. The summit collapsed – Reagan refused to give up on his strategic defense initiative, the so-called ‘star wars’ plan. As reporters rushed to the phone booths to call in their stories of a spectacular diplomatic collapse, aides to both Reagan and Gorbachev realized what an amazing event it had been.
As Robin Wright explains, both sides astounded each other with just how much they had in common, and they came awfully close to a deal, even considering the abolition of nuclear arms. That would later lead to a groundbreaking treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. A thaw was underway. A rivalry was fading, And within five years, the Soviet Union was no more.
When the first draft of history is written about what’s happening right now in Singapore, how will we know who’s won and who’s lost? What’s reasonable to expect from this summit?
William Inboden, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a veteran of strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, says the meeting is tremendously important.
“No other sitting U.S. president has ever met with a leader of North Korea,” he says. “So this really is one of these ‘first time ever in history’ moments.’”
The two leaders will meet alone, with only interpreters in the room.
“That particular format isn’t too unique,” Inboden says. “Reagan and Gorbachev had plenty of their one-on-ones together. Nixon and Mao had some one-on-ones together. But what is different about this one is, unlike Nixon, unlike Reagan, who did their homework for months beforehand, Trump has done very little on his own to prepare for this summit. He doesn’t seem to have any particular plans going in. He’s just famously relying on his instincts and his gut and is going to be winging it.”
That’s why, he says, it’s almost impossible to predict what might come out of the meeting.
Written by Jen Rice.