In Defense of Diplomacy with Despots, from 1776 to Today

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
From George III, Louis XVI, and Napoleon, to Kim, Putin, and Xi, meeting with unsavory leaders can advance American interests.

Sitting alongside Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro at the G-20 summit meeting over the weekend in Osaka, Japan, President Trump, in response to a question about his plans to meet with many of the leaders of America’s geopolitical rivals and adversaries in the days ahead, offered this: “Relationships, relationships, it’s all about the relationships.” Over the course of four days in Asia, the president met with allies, foes, and those whose classification with respect to American interests is more difficult to define.

These previously scheduled meetings included a trilateral sit down with Shinzo Abe of Japan and Narendra Modi of India, bilateral discussions with Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, and conversations with Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. While many of these meetings were criticized for giving legitimacy to “bad actors,” it was an unscheduled meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea that caused the most bewildered reactions.

Despite the fact that Donald Trump has served as commander in chief of the armed forces and the diplomatic corps for two and a half years, the return of the leader-to-leader tête-à-tête as the hallmark of American foreign relations has been something that the media has struggled to accept after eight years of covering a president who disdained the “buddy-buddy” approach: “Personal relationships are not his style,” as one Middle East peace envoy said of Obama in 2015.

As we approach the 243rd anniversary of the founding of the American Republic, it is worth noting that personal diplomacy, often with unsavory leaders of nations whose values did not align with our own, was instrumental in the founding of this nation and has been paramount in its rise to global power and prestige. It was one thing for Thomas Jefferson to proclaim that “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth . . . a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” It was quite another thing for that dissolution to be brought about and for that new power structure to be formed.

Without French assistance to the colonies during the American Revolution, the British would surely have won. From the French government’s decision to arm the rebels with shipments of Charleville muskets to the decisive intervention of the French navy at Yorktown, the American Revolution was to an undeniable extent a proxy war between two rival European monarchies. Regardless of how one characterizes this assistance, though, it was the result of the personal diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin at the court of Louis XVI.

There is a certain tension to the notion that a newly formed republic made up almost entirely of Protestants that had just declared independence from a limited constitutional parliamentary monarchy would send its leading diplomatic figure to the capital of an absolute Catholic monarch to beg for assistance, but such was and such is the nature of international politics. Had it not been for Franklin’s willingness to engage with a government whose values were at odds with the one he hoped to form, there would have been no French recognition of the United States in 1777, no French fleet in 1781, and no United States today.

Following the successful dissolution of the aforementioned political bands, it was time for the new nation to assume its position among the powers, including the former mother country. John Adams was the man for the job and, as the first American ambassador to the Court of St. James, it was his task to engage in diplomacy with the very man he had denounced as a tyrant. By the time the little guy who spoke to King George III all those years ago (what was it, ‘85?) became vice president and then president, relations with Great Britain had improved markedly.

With the ratification of the Jay Treaty in 1795, American manufacturers and merchants were granted access to the British-dominated international trade system of the day, market access that allowed the nation founded in 1776 to thrive by embracing the economic system articulated in that same momentous year. Had it not been for Adams’s willingness to engage with a government he played an instrumental role in overthrowing, the United States would not be the economic powerhouse it is today.

This economic might is a result not only of a history of engaging in international trade on American terms, but also unified political control and cultural norms across a landmass stretching from sea to shining sea, a feat accomplished in no small part through diplomacy with Napoleonic France. While Adams was in London, Thomas Jefferson had arrived in Paris to replace Franklin. Despite carrying on his predecessor’s habit of hobnobbing with the French aristocracy, Jefferson was not particularly impressed, writing to James Monroe that traveling to France “will make you adore your own country, its soil, its climate, its equality, liberty, laws, people and manners” and make you realize “how little do [Americans] know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy.”

Perhaps it was this realization of American exceptionalism through personal diplomatic interaction with the French that led Jefferson to engage with Napoleon to double the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase and prevent the French Empire from setting up shop next door. While the Napoleonic Code aligned in some profound ways with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the man who found the crown of France lying in the gutter and picked it up with his sword was certainly no democrat. Nevertheless, when American economic and geostrategic strategy required it, even the idealistic Jefferson was willing to deal with a despot.

These three examples of diplomacy from the founding period exemplify the role of diplomatic engagement in the early years of the American experiment. A mere century later, the United States had succeeded in becoming a continental nation, remained intact through a civil war, and emerged as an industrialized manufacturing behemoth. With this newfound economic clout came a desire to play a larger role in global politics and that same spirit of diplomatic engagement that drove Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson in the long 18th century would drive the Roosevelts and Reagan in the 20th.

Before the Nobel Peace Prize committee decided to bestow its award on American presidents in advance of potential accomplishments, the medallion and krona had to be earned. Theodore Roosevelt was the first White House occupant to do so. The conflict was the Russo–Japanese War, the event the Portsmouth Peace Conference. Acting as a mediator between the governments of Tsar Nicholas II and Emperor Meiji, Roosevelt worked with two decidedly undemocratic monarchs to ensure that the balance of power in the Pacific remained favorable for the United States to continue to exert its influence.

When the first President Roosevelt won the Nobel prize for his efforts, it increased American prestige in Europe and signaled to leaders around the world (especially those who failed to register the message from the Spanish–American War) that the United States of America had arrived on the world stage and intended to remain there. This new reality was driven home a few years later when the Great White Fleet steamed into port cities all around the globe flying the star-spangled banner for all the world to see, a message of support for our allies and a message of warning to our foes.

By the time Teddy’s cousin Franklin assumed the presidency some two decades later, personal diplomacy of the leader-to-leader meeting variety that we know today finally came into being. When FDR met Winston Churchill on a British battleship off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941, the summit was born. Aside from the grumblings of some Lindbergh isolationists, the meeting between the president of the United States and the prime minister of our democratic anglophone cousins across the pond was relatively uncontroversial. This “conference on the highest level” (the Churchillian phraseology that would lead to the current definition of the term summit) would result in the Atlantic Charter and set the stage for American entry into World War II.

Later in the war, a third man would be added to conferences at Yalta and Potsdam: Joseph Stalin. In one of those classic strange-bedfellows, enemy-of-my-enemy situations so common in international relations, the global champion of free markets and liberty joined forces with a dictatorial Communist regime to bring down a common enemy in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, FDR’s and Churchill’s willingness to meet with and form a semblance of a personal relationship with the reprehensible Soviet strongman was a necessary evil to advance the Anglo-American objective of taking Berlin and liberating Europe.

It was the untimely death of Roosevelt and the unceremonious electoral ouster of Churchill that gave Stalin the upper hand after the war when those two giants were replaced by the eminently unqualified Truman and Atlee. It was a grievous injustice to leave much of the continent American troops had fought to set free from Fascist tyranny under the yoke of a different form of dictatorial oppression, this time of the left-wing variety. Eisenhower’s decision to sideline Patton’s plan to take the fight to the Soviets and emancipate Europe from the Pyrenees to the steppe was shortsighted, condemning millions in Eastern Europe to the terror of Soviet domination and plunging the United States into decades of Cold War with Moscow.

Even though the former ally against the Nazis predictably became America’s new global enemy, the pattern of personal diplomacy with the Soviets established by FDR continued apace. Meetings between Kennedy and Khrushchev, Nixon and Brezhnev, and Reagan and Gorbachev ultimately prevented nuclear catastrophe and limited U.S.–USSR military engagement to Third World proxy wars.

The Soviet leadership was despicable. The critics of diplomatic engagements with and handshakes between Russian rulers who had the blood of their own citizens on their hands, and American presidents were justified in their disdain. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union is today no longer, and the United States is more secure in a world in which it is the hegemon precisely because Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush were willing and able to talk Gorbachev into unwittingly tearing down his evil empire with glasnost and perestroika.

This is just a small sampling of American diplomatic engagements with nations and leaders opposed to American values. In each case, the United States advanced its interests and emerged victorious to continue the push for a world that is, if not always safe for democracy, safer for Americans and our way of life. Trump’s interactions with world leaders at and around the G-20 was merely an extension of this time-tested tactic of American leadership.

The North Korean regime should have been removed from power long before it developed nuclear weapons (MacArthur was well positioned and well intentioned to seek to do so in 1951), and it should not be allowed to engage economically with the world until its nuclear threat is eliminated. Maybe Trump’s handshake with Kim Jong-un on North Korean soil will help bring that about.

Turkey should never have been made a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (a Muslim-majority nation on the Asian continent does not and never has fit well within the architecture of a Europe-centered alliance), and if it takes delivery of a Russian missile-defense system it should be removed from NATO forthwith. Maybe Trump’s conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan will help prevent such a circumstance.

Saudi Arabia is by no means a perfect ally (when the relationship first began with a wartime meeting between FDR and King Abdulaziz on a battleship in the Suez Canal, it was clearly one of convenience for a nation in need of oil to fight a war), and its domestic record on the treatment of its own citizens is by no means in line with American and Western norms. However, the murder of a regime insider-turned-critic should not upend the formation of an anti-Iran coalition of Sunni Arab states aligning with Israel. Maybe Trump’s working breakfast with Mohammed bin Salman will help prevent another such snafu.

China should never have been made a member of the World Trade Organization (welcoming an authoritarian, state-run economy into a club of democratic, free-market nations in the hope that economic success for the People’s Republic would lead to political liberalization and democracy was naïve), and its attempts to undermine the American-led world order should be acknowledged as such and its ambitions to rival and replace the U.S. as the world’s superpower should be thwarted. Maybe Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping will help avoid what seems to be the inevitable Thucydides trap into which the United States and China are entering.

Russia should not have been allowed to annex the Crimean Peninsula, destabilize swathes of eastern Ukraine, and intervene in Syria and Venezuela (the labeling of Russia as a “regional power” acting out of weakness was clearly a malpractice of presidential Kremlinology), and if it continues to further destabilize more global conflict zones, especially in the Western hemisphere, more robust American deterrence will be necessary. Maybe Trump’s discussions with Vladimir Putin will make such deterrence unnecessary.

And while Angela Merkel will not be included in this list of American adversaries (putting aside her refusal to spend money on defense and her cavalier attitude toward the dilution, as a direct result of her misguided migration policies, of the very culture that forms the bedrock of trans-Atlantic relations), if the president is once again unable to convince the German chancellor to abandon her plan to import Russian gas and make her nation an energy vassal state of Moscow, he might want to take a look at the CIA archives.

Trump said at his closing press conference in Osaka before flying to Korea, “I really have a good relationship with everybody.” Only time will tell if these relationships result in meaningful policy changes that benefit American global power and prestige, but as this Fourth of July approaches, it is worth remembering that we have diplomacy with an absolute monarchy to thank for our independence from a limited monarchy.

The safest world for America is a world of pro-American nation-states. In 1776, the United States of America became the only freedom-loving democracy on the planet. Today over half of the world’s nations employ a version of representative government, and it is within that democratic club that we find our truest allies and partners. Nevertheless, among the non-democracies of the world, there is tremendous potential to advance American interests.

Justin D. Shapiro is Rich Lowry’s research assistant and an international relations graduate student at Columbia University.

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