September 29th, 2021


The on-again, off-again Unpredictability Summit

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published June 1,2018

The on-again, off-again Unpredictability Summit

Language is everything, as George Orwell reminded everyone, but today you can get words on the cheap and define them for yourself.

A voice at the supermarket self-service check-out advises a shopper to "put your item in the bagging area." Does that mean the can of soup can go on the floor? The bag of potato chips on a nearby pastry bin? All are in the bagging "area."

A stewardess tells passengers on an incoming flight to "put away personal items, raised your seat to the upright position and fasten seat belts in preparation for landing in the Washington area." (If she took a poll, most passengers would prefer landing precisely at the airport.)

But the vague and the imprecise are the fashion of the day, and that goes double for summits and high-octane diplomacy, where diplomats have been carefully taught to never say what they really mean when they talk about war and peace. The lingua franca of summitry is to speak in gassy phrases that are not intended to be taken seriously. That's for later, in conferring with the devil in the details.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are perfect for the kind of summit that may or may not happen this month in Singapore (and the betting here is that something will happen that can be called a summit). But even "summit" is a word that, for this occasion, has been pumped up like a beach ball. Actual summits are between leaders of great nations out to settle arguments of war, peace, trade and other bits and pieces of statecraft (another gassy word). Mr. Kim is less the summiteer than a crazy guy with a gun holding children as hostage until he gets an airliner to fly him anywhere but Havana or Pyongyang.

But both the Donald and Rocket Man are unpredictable and unconventional, and that makes the unwary think they're rash and ready to blow up the world. So far there is no evidence that either man wants to do that. The president, it's true, has a heavy hand with his tweeting machine, spraying threats and insults, but maybe that's part of the "art of the deal."

Answering a question from Reuters, the British news agency, at Joint Base Andrews before boarding Air Force One to fly to Texas to raise money for the Republican congressional campaigns, he buttered his tongue before answering that it might take more than one summit-like meeting to get a deal done.

"I'd like to see it done in one meeting. But often times that's not the way deals work. There's a very good chance that it won't be done in one meeting or two meetings or three meetings. But it'll get done at some point. It may get done really nicely and really intelligently, or it may not get done intelligently. It may have to be the hard way." Sometimes a deal-maker has to flavor the butter with a touch of vinegar.

But this is not language of an earlier day in the Trump-Kim bromance, when bluff and bombast was the formula on both sides, with each man searching his repertoire of insult and impudence for just the right words to say he couldn't wait to dispatch his missiles to send everyone to oblivion. Soft words may not turn away wrath, but they can distract and confuse.

The president then applied another pat of butter. He thinks Mr. Kim would, on the whole, prefer a doughnut to destruction. "I think [the deal] will get done in a very smart, organized fashion and I think Kim Jong-un wants to see it also. And I'm going to be very happy when the day arrives when we can take sanctions off and have a very good relationship with the entire Korean peninsula."

Mr. Trump's administration is treating Kim Yong-chol, the North Korean envoy who arrived to negotiate the trappings of a summit visit, like a royal visitor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo entertained him in New York and the president invited him to the White House. If all else fails, this Mr. Kim will take home stories to dine out on, presuming there's good something to dine on.

Usually a deal can be worked out if both sides get something they want. Mr. Trump wants an agreement to erase the North Korean nuclear threat, and Mr. Kim wants to have his picture taken with the president of the United States, the two men displayed as equals. Neither man will necessarily get all he wants, but both can use the photograph for bragging rights. Dizzy Dean famously said, "If you can do it, it ain't braggin'," and Winston Churchill said, "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war." They were both right.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times. His column has appeared in JWR since March, 2000.