President Trump “would speak to” North Korea: Yay?

Whichever side you’re on, we’re all looking for something (anything) to convince ourselves or others that a Donald Trump presidency won’t be that bad. We may have received one such sign yesterday, but it’s hard to tell what to make of it.

In an interview with Reuters, de facto Republican nominee Donald Trump said he would be open to meeting with North Korean President Kim Jong-un. Like most good Trump statements, this is a bit of a Rorschach Test — it can mean nothing and anything at the same time.

Whatever the opposite of Devil’s Advocate is, here we go. Let’s take Trump out of it for a second: what if Obama had made this statement? What if the next stop on his Taboo Talking Tour, after Cuba and Iran, was Pyongyang?

I’d probably greet it positively, and I’d probably not be alone. As many came to realize in Cuba, there are a lot of positions and strategies in US Foreign Policy that are rarely criticized or revisited. Our policy of isolating North Korea has been around longer than our Cuban embargo and has been arguably less successful. What’s the harm in having a chat?

Well, possibly a lot. There’s an idea among foreign policy types that talking to an unsavory leader is a bad thing period. Just having a conversation can be seen as conveying legitimacy on the regime. The ubiquitous handshake photo-op might create the image that these two leaders and their countries are equals. Logically, that’s a reasonable statement, but it’s difficult to determine if that is how it works in reality.

Now, let’s bring Donald Trump back in. The real risk here is not in the countries they represent, but in the participants themselves. This campaign has given a glimpse of the kinds of conversations Trump likes to have. Whether you applaud him for speaking his mind or blast him for speaking without thinking, it’s a safe bet that a conversation between Kim and Trump would lack a certain diplomatic sheen. When asked to clarify, he did tell Reuters that he would “talk some sense into” Kim.

Equating the two is a bit facile and heavy-handed, but both are classic, charismatic leaders in the Weberian sense. They are both supremely confident in their own abilities and judgment. As a result, Kim and Trump act quickly and without much deliberation. One could see how a conversation between two well-armed, supremely self-confident individuals might get out of hand.

It’s possible Donald Trump understands as much about Kim and would adjust his tenor. Back when he was in that “aren’t despots great phase?” Trump said nice things about Kim Jong-Un.

How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden … he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him.

Maybe that means he will treat Kim as a worthy adversary, more of an equal. That could be good and stabilizing for the discussion, but it could also give Kim more credibility than he deserves.

So I hope you arrived at this final paragraph with as much clarity as I have writing it: none. There are hints that Trump may become more moderate after winning the nomination. There are elements of his foreign policy that speak to a more cooperative approach. Saying he will engage North Korea seems to be a step in that direction.

But we can’t forget what got him this far — the tough talk that would ban Muslims and force Mexico to pay for a wall. The uncompromising approach that bullies opponents for being low-energy, liars, duds and corrupt.

It remains to be seen not just which Trump will come to the table with Kim Jong-Un, the dealmaker or the deal-breaker, but whether it will Make America Great Again or worse.

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