President Richard Nixon, center left, is engaged in a conversation with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, center right, while sailing down the Potomac River aboard the yacht Sequoia on June 19, 1973. (AP)
On Thursday, President Trump canceled the June 12 summit with North Korea. Individuals within the White House describe how Trump worried Kim Jong Un would back out of the talks, and — according to The Washington Post — “make Americans look like desperate suitors.”
Trump blamed North Korea for derailing the summit. His letter to Kim says, “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
[Making sense of the canceled North Korea summit]
Trump isn’t the first president to face tricky problems in high-stakes summitry. Many commentators see parallels between Trump’s meeting with Kim and Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. Trump’s blame game, though, is more like a different Nixon trip — the 1972 visit to Moscow.
Nixon thought the Soviets would back out of the summit that would produce the SALT I limitations on nuclear weapons. But the more politically experienced Nixon White House decided it would be best to let the Soviets cancel, forcing them to take the blame.
Trump’s North Korea gambit has a built-in tension
Trump has a hawkish reputation to maintain, so he can’t meet with North Korea if it makes him look weak. But Trump publicly committed to working with North Korea, and cooperation with North Korea would give him an important foreign policy success. When it looked as though North Korea would ask for too much and promise too little, Trump’s solution was to cancel — and blame North Korea.
[Trump canceled the summit with North Korea. Here’s the real missed opportunity.]
Nixon, too, wanted a big diplomatic victory. He wanted to reshape the Cold War through detente, a warm-up in relations with the Soviet Union that would reduce the danger of nuclear war. The 1972 Moscow summit was the first meeting of detente between the world leaders, where they were to sign the first major arms limitations agreement.
Summits are precarious
In my book “Constructive Illusions,” I describe how Nixon almost canceled the lead-up to the Moscow summit.
By late 1971, it looked as though Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev would meet in Moscow the following year to sign the SALT I accords. But then North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive in 1972 and made rapid gains in the south.
Nixon panicked. He told Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser at the time, “If the [South Vietnamese Army] collapses? A lot of other things will collapse around here. . . . We’re playing a Russian game, a Chinese game and an election game.” Kissinger responded, “That’s why we’ve got to blast the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam.”
As the situation in Vietnam grew more dire. Nixon began to believe the summit was impossible. He asked adviser Alexander Haig, “How can you possibly go to the Soviet Union and toast to Brezhnev and [Council of Ministers Chairman Alexei] Kosygin and sign a SALT agreement in the Great Hall of St. Peter when Russian tanks and guns are kicking the hell out of our allies in Vietnam?” He told Kissinger “Vietnam is 10 times more important than the summit.”
Unlike Trump, Nixon left it up to the adversary to cancel
Nixon faced a dilemma. If he canceled the summit, he would look like a warmonger. If he didn’t cancel, he would look weak. His solution was to let the Soviets cancel.
When Nixon told his National Security Council on May 8, 1972, that he could not afford to go to the summit, Treasury Secretary John Connally replied “it is better for the Soviets to cancel the summit than us.”
Days earlier, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had reminded the president about President Dwight Eisenhower’s failed meeting with the Soviets in 1960. At the meeting, the Soviet premier criticized U.S. spy flights over the Soviet Union. He also told Eisenhower he was not welcome in Moscow. Haldeman thought the snub led Americans to rally in Eisenhower’s defense, boosting his popularity.
Nixon elaborated to Kissinger: “I remember what Eisenhower did. But I had really forgotten it didn’t hurt Eisenhower when the Russians canceled the summit. It didn’t hurt him. G——, the American people don’t like to be kicked — It didn’t hurt Eisenhower when the g—— Japanese canceled his trip. Remember?” Kissinger later agreed: “Of course, it’s [unclear] if they cancel the summit. But then so be it. We will have the record of having tried.”
If the Soviets walked away from the talks, then they would take the blame.
Playing for time
Fortunately for superpower cooperation, Brezhnev did not back out. When Nixon escalated the war in Vietnam and the Soviet Union did not respond, Nixon decided he could go to Moscow without looking weak. He therefore got the credit — in his mind — of being tough in Vietnam and a peacemaker in Moscow. In the process he helped create the cornerstones of modern arms control.
[North Korea says it’s dismantling its nuclear test site. How significant is that?]
Nixon walked the same tightrope as Trump. Gaining dramatic diplomatic breakthroughs often requires dovish behavior to negotiate with enemies. It is hard to do this while appealing to a hawkish base. Nixon understood that one does not have to walk away from negotiations to look tough. This realization allowed him to pursue a broader range of creative options than Trump’s team seems to be considering at the moment.
For now, Trump’s summit plans seem on hold. If Trump had followed Nixon’s lead and agreed to go to the June 12 summit, despite North Korea’s rhetoric, one of two things would have happened. Either North Korea would cancel the summit, leaving Trump on record as trying for peace but failing because of Kim’s refusal to meet. Or North Korea would have gone to the summit, where Trump would have had a chance for a diplomatic breakthrough. Both would be good outcomes for the U.S. president and for the world.
Events move quickly. A lot changed in the world in the spring of 1972, ultimately making a meeting with Brezhnev a victory for Nixon. It remains to be seen what the spring of 2018 might lead to.