The Trump-Kim meet and case for Political Realism


US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

While the 'historic' meet between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has led to multitudinous comments the world over, what would strike the observer as most curious among these reactions is the consternation in some quarters to the effect that Kim and his regime have been 'legitimized' by the Trump administration through this 'breakthrough summit'.

Reduced to its essentials, the argument runs thus – 'North Korea a rogue dictatorial state, an international outcast, which has been playing hide-and-seek with the world over the decades over nuclear issues and its deplorable human rights record in particular, has now won recognition as a legitimate state of the international system, thanks to the attention and acceptance showered on it by the Donald Trump administration.'

One wonders whether those voicing this line of thinking are bereft of all knowledge of the history of the modern US state's relations with the world. It is not the case that, over the decades, the US has not infused into its foreign policy a measure of idealism, but the US has by no means adhered tooth-and-nail at all times to international norms that are seen as civilizing in their influence and promotive of democratic development.

Commentators may not be saying anything particularly new be stating that some US administrations, over the decades, have been staunch defenders of rulers of the developing world, for instance, who, by no stretch of the imagination could be described as staunch proponents of democracy. In the case of Asia, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and in the case of the Middle East and the Gulf, the late Shah of Iran come easily to mind, to name just two such political personalities. Numerous are the 'Banana Republics' of the Caribbean and the military regimes in our part of the world that had been defended and sustained by the US in the past. How, then, could one look askance at the Trump-Kim meet?

When past US administrations backed repressive regimes of the Third World, they did so in the belief that they were serving the best interests of the US. For example, when the Marcos regime was backed, the aim of the US was to prevent South East Asia from falling entirely into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, besides other reasons. In fact, the US firmly supported regimes in South East Asia in the sixties and seventies, such as some of those in Indonesia, which were in the act of ruthlessly suppressing communist insurgencies. The former Shah of Iran was supported by the US in the late seventies, essentially with the aim of preventing the Gulf from going under the influence of what was seen as Islamic fundamentalism. After all, steady oil supplies were pivotal to the economic survival of the West.

Accordingly, it is what is seen as the US national interest that guides US administrations in the shaping of their foreign policies. One could say that in the case of past US governments that turned out to be staunch defenders of dictatorial regimes of the Third World, it was a 'ruthless realism' that constituted the corner stone of their foreign policy positions. President Trump is merely following such historical precedents in US foreign policy formulation and initiation by 'breaking the ice' with Kim Jong Un's North Korea. He happens to see that some of the best interests of the US at present could be served through this measure.

The question of 'legitimizing' the Kim regime does not arise here. Likewise, what could be seen as idealistic sentiments do not come into play in this situation. Inasmuch as past conservative US administrations saw it to be in the US national interest for them to back repressive regimes of the Third World then, the Trump government perceives it to be in the US interest to attempt to upgrade the latter's ties with North Korea currently. In terms of this logic, the repressive regimes of the Asian countries of the sixties, referred to earlier, were 'legitimized' by the then US administrations through the latter's policy of backing them militarily and otherwise. It needs to be also considered that big power backing is a crucial factor in the recognition and 'legitimization' of states.

Lest it is forgotten, it must be remembered that the US engaged, to a degree and at a level, apartheid South Africa in the decades of the seventies and eighties. The US thinking then was that such engagement could lead to political reform in South Africa. It could very well be that today's North Korea could be engaged by the US in the direction of political reform and denuclearization, provided such engagement proves constructive. Even from this viewpoint, engaging North Korea is no futile exercise.

If it seen that Donald Trump is essentially cast in the mould of past Right wing US Presidents, why is he being considered in some quarters as controversial in the extreme; a sort of 'Bull in the China Shop' political presence? This issue needs addressing if a perceptive assessment of Trump the politician is to be made.

Some of the compulsions that have led Trump to 'open up' to North Korea were dealt with by this columnist last Thursday in his commentary titled, 'Why the US has to bring North Korea in 'from the cold'. Basically, it is global power realities and international tensions that are prompting him to do so. This is chiefly why Trump needs to be seen as a political realist of a thorough going kind. In his scheme of things, 'Playing God' or serving what are seen as global humanitarian causes, for example, is out of place currently because they do not promote what he sees as the US' most basic needs in relation to its power or its place in the world. However, this does not necessarily render Donald Trump an admirable politician or an enlightened one.

Nevertheless, it must be conceded that he has his fingers on what he and his constituency see as the US' best interests. If this is really so is an entirely different question.

Overall, Trump's presence on the world stage is proving exceptionally noteworthy on account of his 'no-holds-barred' recognition and brash pursuit of what he sees as the US' primary interests. It is in respect of this frankness and unblinking realism that he differs from his Republican predecessors.

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