Trump-Kim Summit: 3 lessons of the Cold War for the historic meeting between the United States and North Korea

Trump-Kim Summit: 3 lessons of the Cold War for the historic meeting between the United States and North Korea


Trump is not Nixon; nor is Kim Mao … but the experts explain some parallels of this and other historical meetings with the present.

Danger until the last moment, but finally it seems that will occur.

The summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un approaches and, faced with the great expectations generated, several political experts look back towards the Cold War era , to remember some success stories and mistakes in terms of diplomacy.

Among them, the summits between American presidents and Soviet or Chinese leaders.

Trump is not Kennedy or Reagan, nor is Kim Gorbachev or Mao, analysts say; but some of the negotiations that they maintained in such a turbulent moment of history present certain parallels.


1. Broad agenda versus simple agenda

If there is a meeting with which some kind of parallelism is drawn, that is what was maintained by President John F. Kennedy and the leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, according to Nikolai Sokov, who worked for the Foreign Ministry of the disappeared Soviet Union (USSR) and participated in negotiations with the United States on Russian nuclear weapons.

That meeting, held in Vienna, was a failure for many historians : the young US president arrived unprepared after only four months in office, with high expectations and a very rigid position; and ended up being dragged by the experienced Khrushchev, 67 years old.

Nikita Khrushchev and JFKennedy
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Image caption At that meeting, Kennedy was 44 years old. Photo: Underwood Archives.

In those talks, the tension between the two superpowers rose to the point that the Soviet leader warned: “If the United States wants to start a war for Germany, so be it,” a State Department official recalled.

In a later interview with a reporter for The New York Times , Kennedy acknowledged: “(Khrushchev) destroyed me.”

The failure of the summit gave rise to the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin Wall and the Vietnam War, something that “does not encourage too much” if it is now compared to the summit between Trump and Kim, he says in conversation with BBC World the ex-official of the USSR Nikolai Sokov.

That’s why Sokov, who is now a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation Studies in California, insists that one of the keys is to adjust expectations.

“The summit can be successful with a limited agenda, or it can fail because it has a very ambitious agenda ,” he explains.

Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna.
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Image caption “(Khrushchev) destroyed me”, confessed later the young American president.

Sokov, however, considers that one should not overestimate the experience of the past, but he points out several conditions that may favor success: “A good preparation or knowing the result that will be achieved”.

“I personally would be very satisfied with a limited result: it would be the most efficient, if they agreed to just keep in touch, continue the negotiations … it would be the best result.”

2. The good guys and the bad guys

Another of the historic meetings that come up when talking about the meeting between Kim and Trump is the trip Richard Nixon made to China in 1972 and the meeting he had there with the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong.

It was the first time that a US president had stepped on the Asian country after decades of hostilities between them. The enmity was such that Nixon’s team was not even clear if Mao would meet the American leader until China arrived.

Mao and Nixon in Beijing.
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Image caption Nixon’s visit to China was the first by a US president in charge of the country.

The fact that China already had nuclear weapons helped the United States “accept the existence of a communist China,” recalls Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.

“Nuclear weapons were part of the reason why the United States recognized that (China) was an important country and could not continue to ignore it.”

“I think that’s one of the lessons that North Korea has learned,” he adds in conversation with BBC Mundo.

Lewis points out that between the meeting of Mao and Nixon and that of Trump and Kim, however, there is a big difference: for Nixon’s trip to take place there were “long and serious conversations among very competent officials”, like the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, promoter of the approach with the Chinese.

“(The current Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo has nothing experience,” he says.

Nixon on the Great Wall.
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Image caption Nixon made a week-long tour of the country, with stops in Beijing or Shanghai.

Among other lessons that emerge from that important trip, is a “paradox” , in Lewis’s opinion.

“In the United States, we tend to think naively that nuclear weapons are bad and that the people who love them must be bad, but in reality the people in China who wanted them were the same ones who wanted to improve the relationship with the United States. (…) We have to be prepared for the idea that North Koreans who want to develop nuclear weapons are also those who want good relations with the US. “

3. Know your enemy

If a quick search is made of the journalistic chronicles of the time, part of the story of the meeting held by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986 inevitably recalls the relationship between Kim and Trump today.

Reagan, then, came to the meeting after having branded the USSR the “evil empire” ; while Gorbachev had considered that Reagan was a “liar”, among other things … a dialectical battle similar to the one we saw this year between Trump himself and Kim Jong-un.

“At that time, people were very concerned because Reagan was being very aggressive with the Soviets (…) there was fear of a World War III,” recalls Peggy Grande, ex-president and confidant of Reagan after leaving the presidency, and who considers that Trump is being smart to follow the example of his predecessor.

Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland.
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Image caption The Soviet leader proposed a “quick” meeting that should not last more than a day, and in the end it lasted two.

At that meeting in Reykavik, Reagan arrived with little information about what Gorbachev wanted to get out of the meeting, according to official documents of the time collected by the Washington Post .

“Gorbachev offered the shocked Reagan concession after concession, including the dismantling of hundreds of nuclear weapons, ” recalls writer David E. Hoffman in an op-ed in the Post, in which he explains how both “improvised” the dismantling of their arsenals. in the case of Reagan without having consulted some key officials of his government.

The American president was ” amazed “, says Hoffman; But then the Soviet leader asked him to put a limit on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – the anti-missile shield that the media dubbed “Star Wars”.

And Reagan said no, ditching the meeting.

The lesson? “Know your opponent’s intentions and capabilities before you sit down with him, that’s what we have intelligence agencies, diplomats and academics for,” urges Hoffman, who won a Pulitzer Prize with his book “The Dead Hand: The Story No told about the arms race of the Cold War and its dangerous legacy. “

Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland.
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Image caption The faces of both leaders were very different from their departure from Iceland, as can be seen in the photo.

Although both leaders were not happy at home, their Icelandic meeting was later seen as a success , because it opened the way for shortly after they agreed to end all short and intermediate range nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their shuttles; a key step for the end of the Cold War.

Therefore, Peggy Grande, who met Gorbachev in meetings that he had with Reagan later, believes that “we must remember that the road to peace is not straight, linear or predictable.”

“It was not then, in the 80s, nor will it be now.” Then, the world was surprised even by the fact that Reagan would sit at the table with Gorbachev and never imagined that it would lead to the elimination of all kinds of weapons. nuclear, and in the end to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and freedom for much of Eastern Europe. “

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