President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump board Air Force One after the Helsinki summit on July 16.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump board Air Force One after the Helsinki summit on July 16. Shealah Craighead/White House

Donald Trump Is Falling in Love With Summits

In offering to meet with Iran’s leader, the president sticks to what’s becoming a familiar pattern.

Turns out that when Donald Trump recently warned Iran’s president on Twitter that more threats against the United States would bring “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” it was just the first part of his message. The second was, essentially, “AND IF YOU’D RATHER TALK, I’D LOVE TO!” Or, as he put it on Monday at a press conference with Italy’s prime minister, “I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” with “no preconditions.”

When Barack Obama, who Trump accuses of being soft on America’s adversaries, said he was willing to meet with the leaders of foes such as Iran and North Korea without preconditions back in 2007, he was ridiculed by Republicans and even Democrats like Hillary Clinton as hopelessly naive. But at times, Trump has embraced a surprisingly Obama-like approach to the power of dialogue. “I’ll meet with anybody. I believe in meeting,” Trump said on Monday, “especially when you’re talking about potentials of war and death and famine and lots of other things.”

There was a hint of this even during his campaign for president, when Trump offered to have a hamburger with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un; and another hint last fall, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he had turned down a proposed meeting with Trump. Since then, Trump has gotten two major summits under his belt, and he’s treated the summit as something more than a favorite tactic: He has cast it as itself a remedy for the country’s most intractable foreign-policy challenges. Trump meets with Kim and announces, in reference to a danger decades in the making, that there is “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”; he shakes hands with Vladimir Putin and proclaims, in regard to a decades-old superpower rivalry, that while the U.S.–Russia “relationship has never been worse than it is now … that changed as of about four hours ago.”  

The spectacle of such summits surely appeals to Trump’s taste for theatrics and ratings bonanzas—for made-for-TV “wins.” But they’re also critical components of a process Trump appears to have pursued with threats of war with North Korea, trade war with the European Union, and now a showdown with Iran: Escalate tensions in order to de-escalate them, and then claim victory. “Begin by hurling insults at the other side,” Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post last week, in summarizing the approach. “Threaten extreme consequences. Then meet with the other side, backpedal and triumphantly announce that you have saved the world from a crisis that your rhetoric and actions caused in the first place.” In the North Korean case, it took eight months for Trump to go from “fire and fury” to offering a summit. In the Iranian case, the shift from threats of unprecedented destruction to offers of unprecedented diplomatic engagement took about a week—though it could always shift back.

The leader-to-leader summit—and especially the private one-on-one sit-down between those leaders without advisers present—is also a pure distillation of what appears to be Trump’s preferred method of handling international affairs: a coercive, transactional, highly personalized bilateralism in which, as the political theorist Danielle Allen recently put it, “global politics is conducted as a series of deals with Donald Trump.” The summit is the foreign-policy equivalent of Trump’s famous declaration during the presidential campaign that, when it came to America’s many afflictions, “I alone can fix it.” The key to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis is not some unwieldy six-party negotiation, but rather Trump sizing up Kim Jong Un within seconds of meeting him. Trump withdraws from the multinational nuclear deal with Iran and proposes a tête-à-tête with Iran’s leader instead. “We could work something out that’s meaningful,” Trump explained on Monday, “not the waste of paper that the [Iran] deal was.”

Trump administration officials have acknowledged the central role summitry is now playing in the president’s management of foreign relations. “The summit in and of itself is an important deliverable,” Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, told reporters during a briefing call before Trump met Putin in Helsinki, Finland. (National-Security Adviser John Bolton said almost exactly the same thing.) “I would just point to the summit with Kim Jong Un, which has already shown the possibility for reduced tension on the Korean peninsula and certainly throughout Northeast Asia. And if you can imagine what reduced tension could do in the case of U.S.–Russia and Europe–Russia, it would be on a much bigger scale.”

The drawback of this approach is that sometimes a summit is just a summit, not a solution. Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un certainly reduced tensions on the Korean peninsula, but so far it has not resulted in North Korea making any major concessions on its nuclear-weapons program—the reason Trump met with Kim in the first place. The summit with Putin has, in the near term at least, actually increased tensions between the United States and Russia because of Trump’s refusal to confront Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, without yielding any concrete achievements as of yet—not even a joint-summit statement.

On Monday, Mike Pompeo seemed to backtrack a bit on his boss’s offer to meet with Iran’s leaders without preconditions, suggesting to CNBC that the administration would set a high bar for a summit. “The president wants to meet with folks to solve problems,” the secretary of state said. “If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have a conversation with them.” What remains unclear from the administration’s track record is whether, if Iran doesn’t meet those conditions and a summit happens regardless, any of those goals can be accomplished through a conversation alone.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.