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Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, and the Art of the Raw Deal

The president may have made major diplomatic strides in Singapore while almost simultaneously insulting our closest allies. Is Trump trolling the world?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Donald Trump spent last weekend roasting Justin Trudeau. At the G-7 summit in Quebec, Trump called the Canadian prime minister “very dishonest and weak.” Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow accused Trudeau of “betrayal” and “double-crossing” after Canada’s leader—backed by the five other G-7 delegations apart from the U.S.—challenged Trump’s “insulting” tariffs on aluminum and steel imports. Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro said, “There’s a special place in hell” for Trudeau, who supposedly meant to “stab” the president “in the back.” It’s all rather offensive and hotheaded language for a U.S. president and his advisers to deploy against long-standing allies who’ve expressed their mild irritation about some tariffs. Unfortunately, a wonky disagreement about international trade has unraveled into a fit of insults from the American president, who has crossed his arms indefinitely. Ultimately, the U.S. withdrew from the signed trade declaration, leaving Trump to his lonesome temper tantrum, an embarrassment to the notion—however mythical—of prestigious American leadership.

Trump’s G-7 resentments bled immediately into his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday in Singapore. It’s a historic summit that both sides nearly canceled due to mutual petulance. For months, Trump and Kim traded lively insults, including quirky personal epithets. So it’s astounding to see the two leaders meeting for the first time, shaking hands on a stage with both national flags interspersed—a provocative display—at the Capella hotel. For Trump, the Kim regime has been a crash course. In the earliest months of Trump’s presidency, China’s President Xi Jinping had to explain the basic geopolitics of East Asia to the famously impressionable Trump, who listened to Xi “for 10 minutes” before radically revising his outlook for the region. Thus, Trump seems uniquely ill-equipped to negotiate North Korean denuclearization and a proper end to the Korean War. Still, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has appeased Trump, heralding the president’s “huge” contributions to this round of diplomacy between South Korea and North Korea; Moon Jae-in has even suggested that Trump’s efforts should earn him the Nobel Peace Prize.

The U.S. media has struggled to make sense of Trump’s odd contributions to the peace process. “In his own unorthodox way,” the White House correspondent Mark Landler writes for The New York Times, “Mr. Trump has been preparing for this encounter his entire adult life.” He must mean “preparing” in the loosest sense, though Trump’s self-authored mythology—his brand—insists upon Landler’s interpretation. Since the beginning of his political career three years ago, Trump—once a total political novice—has touted himself as the consummate American mogul, one whose supposed expertise, high-stakes dealmaking, is the only qualification that matters. Trump’s presidency hasn’t exactly born out the merits of that qualification, abroad or even in Congress. His party’s signature healthcare priority, the Obamacare repeal, unraveled dramatically despite an overwhelming congressional majority. His signature immigration reforms have largely stalled, and his administration’s executive measures—such as the Justice Department’s decision to disqualify victims of domestic violence and gang violence from asylum—have engendered passionate opposition and ill will. Trump leads no agreeable, bipartisan endeavors. There are no grand bargains—only refunds, regrets, and demands to speak with customer service.

Indeed, Trump’s diplomacy can seem as whimsical, ill-fated, and insolvent as his repeatedly bankrupt real estate business. Speaking with the president’s aides, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg recently attempted to bring Trump’s blurry worldview into focus. “Trump possesses no ability to explain anything resembling a foreign policy philosophy. But this does not mean that he is without ideas,” Goldberg writes. Goldberg then relays a few Trump aides’ respective interpretations of “the Trump doctrine,” which, it turns out, isn’t an outcomes-based worldview so much as a chauvinistic posture best summarized through slogans, including the punch line “We’re America, bitch.” In Quebec, Trump said as much to Trudeau, Angela Merkel, and the other G-7 leaders. He confirmed that the Trump doctrine isn’t just selfish, but also wild, uninformed, and arbitrary in its particular aims.

And yet, Trump seems to have come so far and grown so much in the way of international relations, if only because Xi Jinping is no longer schooling the U.S. president on his lap. Less than a year ago, Trump could communicate with the Kim regime only by threatening imminent nuclear obliteration; he promised to rain down “fire and fury” in response to any further threats and test launches. This week, Trump has come surprisingly close to historic, constructive diplomacy—though only after spurning Trudeau and the rest of America’s major allies in the West. Trump departed for Singapore in isolated standing, an erratic and unconventional negotiator who has said he will improvise his way through the most complex and difficult negotiation of his presidency. The Singapore summit will test Trump’s credibility as a dealmaker, already the president’s most illusory quality. It will be a small wonder if Trump plays more nicely and more productively with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un than he does with any American ally, including Trudeau, the friendly prime minister next door. Trump may surprise Kim Jong Un, but he has already disappointed everyone else—save for the sobbing Dennis Rodman, who flew to Singapore, donned his MAGA hat, and ranted to the cable news cameras at the start of the summit in true Trumpian fashion.