Oh blessed diplomacy, hallowed be thy process as we worship at the sacred altar of Cordell Hull's striped pants.
At the New York Times it is mandatory that President Donald Trump receive little or no credit for his accomplishments. This seems to be especially true about the Thursday announcement that Trump will be meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May. The Times columnist, Max Fisher, went out of his way to emphasize not only in his Thursday column (which must have been hastily written since the announcement came at 7 PM that day) but also in a series of tweets that Trump just wasn't following proper diplomatic protocol.
We shall begin with Fisher's column but the real fun comes later in his tweets which, after the enormity of this diplomatic breakthrough seems to have sunk in, sound even more desperate in his attempts to minimize this Trump accomplishment which until recently most "experts" wrote off as impossible.
Usually, before high-level talks like these, both sides spend a long time telegraphing their expected outcomes.
Such signals serve as public commitments, both to the other side of the negotiation and to citizens back home. It’s a way for both sides to test one another’s demands and offers, reducing the risk of surprise or embarrassment.
That is not really how things have proceeded with the United States and North Korea. Mr. Trump has already committed to granting North Korea one of its most desired concessions: a high-level meeting between the heads of state.
In exchange, North Korea has not publicly committed to anything. It has, quite cannily, channeled its public communications through South Korea, making it easier to renege.
Further, Mr. Trump has declared “denuclearization” as his minimal acceptable outcome for talks, making it harder for him to accept a more modest (but more achievable!) outcome and costlier for him to walk away.
Ronald Reagan talked about denuclearization routinely. That doesn't mean it was "harder" for him to have arms-control talks with the Soviets. It helped the public to see the liberal-media warmonger cartoon wasn't accurate. But back to Max:
The Trump administration has gotten the process backward.
It’s practically an axiom of international diplomacy that you only bring heads of state together at the very end of talks, after lower-level officials have done the dirty work.
Negotiators need to be free to back down from demands. Or to contradict themselves. Or to play good cop, bad cop. Or to walk away. Lower-level officials can lose face or sacrifice credibility for the sake of talks. Heads of state are much too constrained.
President Ronald Reagan walked away from the Reykjavik Summit without an agreement in 1986 and although many diplomatic purists threw a conniption fit at the time, in the end it worked out just fine.
For North Korea, high-level talks are a big win in their own right. Mr. Kim seeks to transform his country from a rogue pariah into an established nuclear power, a peer to the United States, a player on the international stage.
Fisher is already declaring North Korea to be the big winner. Of course, he can't grant any possibility of victory to Trump even though, as pointed out above, Kim has already sent a strong signal he wants to denuclearize because supposedly that was the wish of Daddy Dearest.
Fisher's tweets sound even more desperate in the attempt to deny Trump credit for this historic diplomatic breakthrough:
Trump and Kim already have wildly mismatched expectations. Trump clearly expects denuclearization, and has publicly tied himself to that outcome, making anything short a failure. That matters because how will Trump react when he comes home embarrassed?— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) March 9, 2018
It's going to be fun to watch Max embarrassed by the outcome of the talks since Kim already signaled his willingness to denuclearize.
Diplomacy and talking are good. But there are best practices in diplomacy for a reason. We’re skipping all of those, turning a major opportunity for peace into a highly likely freebie low-cost win for North Korea.— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) March 9, 2018
Exact diplomatic protocol is all-important and takes precedence over the attempts of the man who eats, breaths, and sleeps negotiations. Oh, and notice how Fisher has already declared North Korea the probable winner?
Trump’s interactions with other authoritarians, particularly Putin, probably provide the best template for how this will go. Suggests little role for professional diplomats, US concessions intended to personally ingratiate Trump with Kim, but little actual policy movement.— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) March 9, 2018
Yeah, Max. The talks are already as good as over with little practical effect...according to you.
Likeliest outcome is tacit legitimation of North Korea as an established nuclear power. Was probably going to happen anyway. But NK craves that so deeply, was an opportunity for real concessions. Bc we are skipping 90% of the diplomatic process, likely they’ll get it for free.— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) March 9, 2018
Yeah, skipping that sacred diplomatic process that worked oh so well in the past in regards to North Korea.
Trump is putting himself at the center of this process, and with very little prep or institutional support, which means it will turn to a large degree on his personal traits, biases, impulses and negotiating style. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your view of him.— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) March 9, 2018
Well, we already pretty much know the view of Fisher (and everyone else at the New York Times) about Trump.
But it is worth noting that Trump has undergone relatively few tests as a “negotiator” as president, and most have ended badly. Even domestic legislative negotiations tended toward drama, inaction, and failure. And his party controls both houses.— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) March 9, 2018
Should we tell Max about the massive tax cut bill? Naw!