Diplomacy: Conventional, and unconventional

By now the international community has got used to President Donald Trump’s unconventional diplomacy and yet he never ceases to surprise; his meeting on June 30 with the North Korean supremo Kim Jong Un in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas is illustrative. How this, the third meeting between them, came about is noteworthy even in an age when top global leaders are constantly in direct touch with one another. It is best described in Trump’s remarks to the media after he had crossed the demarcation line between the two Koreas making him the first US President to do so.

Trump said, “We were in Japan for the G20. We came over (comment: after the G20 summit Trump was on a brief official visit to South Korea) and I said, “Hey I’m over here. I want to call up Chairman Kim. And we got to meet. And stepping across that line was a great honor”. Earlier, while still in Japan, Trump had tweeted, “If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)! Kim and Trump did far more than say hello. They decided to re-start talks, for the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which have remained frozen after the failure of their second summit at Hanoi in February this year.

While Trump has not abandoned all aspects of conventional diplomacy he has refused to be constrained by it. His first two meetings with Kim, in Singapore in June 2018 and in Hanoi, were planned in advance and their logistics and modalities were worked out between US and North Korean diplomats in advance. On the other hand, this DMZ one, at least prima facie, was almost spontaneous. More importantly, instead of letting his diplomats announce even this hurried meeting Trump took ownership for arranging it. He projected it entirely as his own initiative from start to finish.

It is here that Trump differs from almost all his international counterparts, some of whom also do not fully adhere to standard diplomatic conventions. The only other leader, this writer can recall, who has acted with similar ‘spontaneity’, on one occasion, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi who ‘dropped in’ to see the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, on his way back to Delhi from Kabul on Christmas Day 2015. Modi too had himself announced that visit through his own tweet.

In the past leaders never announced inter-state bilateral or multilateral meetings themselves. The task of scheduling and announcing meetings was the work of diplomats. Naturally while doing so the convenience of the leaders concerned was taken. Diplomats also worked out the modalities of meetings on the basis of security considerations and the preferences of their leaders. What transpired at these meetings was made known by authorised spokespeople whose statements were carefully drafted. Generally, even in the case of unsuccessful meetings care was taken to preserve a path forward for bilateral ties. Now leaders tweet their decisions.

Leaders also wanted to be consistent and predictable; hence, their comments were carefully thought through. It is here that Trump has proved to be different. He is not worried about the impact of his words and decisions on the diplomatic and inter-state processes. He also has no reluctance to repeatedly change his stance or contradict himself. Thus, soon after he became President he hurled personal insults at Kim Jong Un and threatened him with “fire and fury”. Now the two share a ‘beautiful’ relationship. At the Singapore meeting some progress on the substantial process seemed in sight. At Hanoi, Trump curtailed the meeting signalling failure and now after the DMZ meeting US-North Korean negotiators are to meet again.

Is Trump changing the diplomatic game in fundamental ways or is he only an aberration? The fact is that while Trump may a maverick communications technology is impacting on the conduct of diplomacy and the management of inter-state ties in dramatic ways. In the age of 24/7 news cycle and an increasingly pervasive social media the emphasis of leaders and their officials is to get their ‘story’ out instantaneously. Hence, almost all leaders have their presence on social media platforms. This was unthinkable even at the turn of the century. It is unlikely though any leader will emulate Trump and tweet at odd hours baffling his officials and diplomats!

It can be validly argued that the test of any form of diplomatic practice and the conduct of leaders is the efficacy with which contentious international issues are addressed. If a contradictory, abrasive, unpredictable and unconventional Trump succeeds in resolving issues when his predecessors failed then standard diplomatic practices would need to be examined. That is not currently needed for Trump has not made headway on any major global issue.

The problem is that as the world becomes more and more complex and issues confronting the human species require international co-operation the Trump approach becomes dangerous in many respects. This is especially so when difficult decisions taken by a predecessor(s) are just thrown away as in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, climate change accords or US immigration laws that impact peoples the world over.

These are of course substantive issues beyond the confines of procedural diplomacy. But here too Trump has displayed a disdain to adhere to convention. While all this may appeal to his support base in the US it has made the management of international relations difficult. Obviously Trump does not care as he pursues his version of America First policies.