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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Why Trump should have studied Churchill before Kim summit 

The success or failure of talks in Singapore may depend on the unlikeliest of matters

US President Donald Trump waves as he disembarks Air Force One after arriving in Singapore June 10, 2018. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
US President Donald Trump waves as he disembarks Air Force One after arriving in Singapore June 10, 2018. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

"If that was a summit, I'd hate to see a valley." The words were originally used after the G8 in 2005. But they apply more powerfully to the G7 in Canada this week. Or, as French President Emmanuel Macron was calling it, the "G6+1".

The tense photos emerging from that summit capture a moment of great jeopardy. There is despair and sadness in western capitals, just as there is incredulous relief in the offices of the world's disrupters and despots. We were busy building driverless cars, but have invented instead a driverless international system.

Of course, President Donald Trump's belligerent and unilateral course — on climate, the Middle East, trade — was already well set. So alongside those more tangible threats to global co-operation, another round of competitive handshakes might look more like theatrics.

But diplomacy is not reality television: when it fails, the world is less safe. Without the international rules-based system that came under such attack in Canada, we will see more politicians weaponise intolerance and sell the snake oil of hatred of difference as a panacea for globalisation. We will see more of the inequality of opportunity in which extremism festers.

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All of which makes President Trump's meeting with Kim Jong Un even more important. This will be the kind of summit that stops the traffic. Literally in Singapore. Metaphorically everywhere else. It will be box office statecraft. Yet classic diplomatic skills — tact, cultural understanding, delicacy, finesse, an ability to listen — have not been hallmarks of either leader, to put it diplomatically. So success or failure also rests on the craft in statecraft. In particular, three aspects — protocol, language and food.

The 19th century French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand once said that "only fools mock etiquette, it simplifies life". Teams from both sides have been working for weeks to simplify the Trump-Kim meeting. Who stands where, and when? What are the moments of unspontaneous spontaneity? Where do the meetings take place? Who gets in the room? Will there be a discreet step behind the press conference podium of the shorter leader? Even clothing will be agreed in advance – bilateral ties can often depend on the colour of the actual ties worn.

So the schedule will also be heavily pre-cooked by "sherpas", the advisers who get the leaders to the summit.

They will have huge teams supporting them, nicknamed the yaks. Away from the cameras there will be a frantic form of diplomatic speed dating: plenaries, bilateral, brush bys, pull asides, one-to-ones. The press conference is also often heavily contested in advance. Podiums, flags, prepared statements, questions from the media.

I suspect that in this case a "grip and grin" is safer, with cameras in only while the leaders are discussing the weather. Even so, the more narcissistic the leaders, the more room for surprises.

Language will also be crucial.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong, left, is seen in the background as the North Korean leader arrives to meet with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana or presidential palace on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in Singapore. Wong Maye-E / AP Photo
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong, left, is seen in the background as the North Korean leader arrives to meet with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana or presidential palace on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in Singapore. Wong Maye-E / AP Photo

The translators will be among the most important people in the room, able to sink or rescue the meeting with a choice of word, or help their leader stall for time.

Those drafting the declaration will work through the night to find the right tone and content. Mr Talleyrand was also a master of the "short and ideally unclear" agreement, drafted to ensure that everyone could explain it to their own constituencies in different ways. But in a social media age, bland statements no longer cut it. The world's media won’t have much patience for "the two leaders discussed issues of mutual concern". People have a right to authentic communication from those who claim to serve them.

Diplomacy depends on the quality of personal relationships, particularly at the top. And so it may be that the make-or-break moment for the summit is food.

One former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, calls this "one of the most sublime arts of diplomacy".

Every diplomat has a tale to tell about putting country before stomach. Even cutlery creates some potential for awkwardness. Stalin used to think that Winston Churchill had the place settings for dinner made especially complicated in order to gain a tactical advantage over him.

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Ultimately, once the smoke clears, the tweets are tweeted and the hands are gripped, the meeting will be judged by the results.

When Churchill's foreign minister pressed him not to jeopardise warm relations with Spain, Churchill blasted back, "stuff your diplomatic relations, what do you think they're for?" These words should hang at the entrance of every foreign ministry. The objective of a summit should not be to leave everyone feeling happy, but to make the right deal. That is one thing about diplomacy that President Trump understands.

Most summits claim to be historic. I hope that this one genuinely will be. But with two leaders not known for diplomacy, our collective fate may come down to chaperones, choice of words, and cheeseburgers.

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age

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