13 June 2018

Out of sheer despair, I have been silent for a long time on Trump’s new style of ‘diplomacy’, as well as on the dangerous clowning of Boris Johnson at Britain’s Foreign Office. And when BBC Radio Five Live asked me to do a pre-recorded telephone interview on the Singapore summit, I declined; partly on the grounds that it would take them too long to delete all the expletives, and partly because it would be better served by a theatre critic or B-movie aficionado. However, a disappointing piece in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins, a columnist whose writing I usually admire, has stirred me to speak. Playing to the Trump narrative, he suggests that only the great deal-maker himself could have pulled off anything like the Singapore summit – but because of his spectacular vulgarity rather than his alleged mastery of negotiating skills honed over years of achieving coups in the real estate business and boasted of in a book with his name on it but which he didn’t write. This vulgarity, says Jenkins, was the ace in Trump’s manicured paw which enabled him to exploit the vanity of Kim Jong-un as well as gratify his own. Should Trump achieve the ambitious aims of his Korea policy, he ‘could,’ says Jenkins, ‘justly claim that his methods have made the world a safer place. It will be back to the drawing board for traditional diplomacy,’ he concludes.

The main problem with this argument – as with Trump’s own claim to diplomatic exceptionalism – is that it overlooks the blindingly obvious fact that never before has the situation been so ripe for diplomatic progress on Korea. Donald Duck, let alone Donald Trump, could have got Kim to Singapore. This is a result chiefly of the rapid and unanticipated progress made by the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme and its control by a ruthless and adventurous government. Combined with the increasingly dire condition of its brutally sanctioned economy and an erosion of Chinese sympathy towards it, such a situation would have given any administration in Washington both the incentive and the means to give unprecedented priority to Korea diplomacy – and Pyongyang the confidence as well as the incentive to respond seriously. There has been a welcome breakthrough of sorts over Korea but it has been in spite of Donald Trump rather than because of him – and he could easily wreck it yet. If the touchy feely, self-congratulatory theatrics of Singapore are to be built on, it will be traditional diplomacy that will have patiently to put in the so-far-absent foundations (see Freedland) and lay the bricks – while somehow preventing the worst president in US history from once more getting well ahead of the real professionals and trying to place a gaudy roof on thin air.