Oped: Trump approach to Kim amoral, but it may work

Leonid Bershidsky
Tribune News Service

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un didn't agree on anything of global importance, and the grandiose photo opportunity that took place in Singapore probably benefited Kim more than it did Trump. But the beauty of the moment is that Trump doesn't care about that sort of thing, and that could be good for world peace.

More:After summit, Trump announces halt to U.S.-S. Korea ‘war games’

Consistency isn't generally one of Trump's strengths. Even at his Singapore news conference on Tuesday, he first said North Koreans' human rights had been discussed only briefly at the summit and then contradicted himself, saying the discussion had taken place "at great length." But Trump has been consistent about one thing: A meeting with anyone is "no big deal." It's not a royal honor to bestow and not a human rights prize to award. It doesn't cost much even when the U.S. president is involved. It's just a meeting.

Trump had no compunction about setting up a row of alternating U.S. and North Korean flags as the backdrop for the photo op or about shaking Kim's hand. The optics pointed to a meeting of equals, which is preposterous on any number of levels. To Trump, though, Kim appears to be a fellow celebrity, a "very talented person" and a "good negotiator."

Very talented? Didn't Kim inherit his country at 27 or 28 (his exact age is not known; Trump said 26 and was likely wrong), "run it tough" and manage to hold on to power? That's Trump's measure of talent anyhow. Is being a dictator more demanding than serving as a democratically elected leader? There's no easy answer to that question, and Trump doesn't care about complicated ones.

It was likely in the same spirit that Trump suggested Russia get back its G-8 seat; other Western leaders rejected it outright because they treat their club as a gathering of the righteous. Trump, who isn't righteous himself by any stretch of the imagination, takes every chance he gets to mock the sanctimony.

It's also in the same spirit that he calls the Clinton administration a "regime" — a word previous administrations would have reserved for foreign autocracies. It's not just an insult: any government is a regime to Trump.

Trump reduces all the moral issues that exist in global politics to the ethos of a celebrity gathering, where people know inconvenient truths about each other but still smile, shake hands and chat. They may have said nasty things about each other in public, but in private, they are on first-name terms, if not necessarily chummy.

This may feel wrong, especially after eight years of Obama's attempts at moral leadership — which, it must be said, didn't help resolve a single major global issue. But it's not necessarily a bad mode of operation. When leaders know each other, relatively minor concessions, important nonetheless to a lot of ordinary people, such as the repatriation of the bodies of U.S. Korean war dead or the return of the  Japanese abductees, are easier to achieve.  The return of the U.S. soldiers' bodies is one of the few specific items on which Trump and Kim signed off.

In 1995, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin made a phone call to Shamil Basayev, a Chechen terrorist who had just seized 1,600 hostages in the town of Budyonnovsk. He was often mocked for negotiating the hostages' release and Basayev's retreat (the warlord was only killed in a Russian special operation in 2006), but he likely saved hundreds of lives just by placing that call. Trump's advances to Kim are a Los Angeles movie party version of these events.

The "very special bond" Trump said he had developed with Kim may turn out to be junk. The declaration the two leaders signed is mostly a commitment to further negotiations, and it can easily lead to nothing, as has happened many times in the past. But a personal breaking of the ice is worth something, and a permanent channel of communication isn't worthless, either. A stop to U.S.-led military exercises on the Korean peninsula and a moratorium on further North Korean nuclear testing — earlier proposed by China — are small but useful steps toward peace, even if China will probably make sure now that international sanctions don't hurt the Kim regime too much.

Trump revealed at the Singapore news conference that he hoped his simple tactic — threaten "fire and fury," then make nice — will work with Iran, too, and the Iranian leaders will sit down with him to make a better nuclear deal. If — and that's a big "if" — that happens, Trump will likely call them "very talented" too.

The U.S. president is taking a gamble with his amoral, transactional approach, and he will be derided and despised if he fails. On the other hand, he already faces so much derision, contempt and hatred that he doesn't stand to lose much. And he'd look even more incongruous attempting the moral leadership spiel. Trump shouldn't be condemned merely for trying a different tack, and he should be commended if any results are achieved — even if all he manages to do is bring the dead soldiers home.