Donald Trump amazed the world on 9 March when he suddenly said he would meet Kim Jong-un one-on-one. To date, no US president in office has traded face-to-face with a top North Korean leader. Nobody expected such a gesture from the US Chief Executive who, in September 2017, was still threatening North Korea with annihilation.
As in dramatic art, military tactics or amorous seduction, surprise is one of the important tools of great diplomacy. The unexpected surprise carries a kind of magical effect. Simply through psychological shock it can lead to catharsis.
In the history of contemporary international relations, the surprise effect has proven to be very productive on several occasions.
At the end of the summer of 1958, the Germans were stupefied when General de Gaulle, who had just returned to his role at the beginning of June, suddenly invited Chancellor Adenauer to spend the weekend – and in his private residence. Until then both the German Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, were very suspicious of de Gaulle. They saw him as a nationalist, anti-German and anti-European soldier. To dispel their concerns he had to resort to an exceptional gesture.
“For the historical ties that will evolve between them, and on behalf of their two peoples, this old Frenchman and very old German, the setting of a family home has more meaning than would have the decor of a palace,” de Gaulle wrote in his Memoirs of Hope.
The two days went well. The discussions were of high quality. The Chancellor was sincerely touched by the family simplicity of the welcome at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. A profound friendship was born between the two men. The political result was complete reconciliation less than fifteen years after the Occupation and, in 1963, the signing of the Elysée Treaty, which still governs the institutional relations between France and Germany.
When Richard Nixon arrived in the White House in early 1969, his first trip abroad was to Paris. In one of their face-to-face talks – which was, of course, leaked at the time – de Gaulle advised his American counterpart and friend to recognize Mao’s China. Henry Kissinger took on preparations in secret.
On July 15, 1971, the US President surprised the world by announcing, in a short televised speech, that he accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Chou-en-laï to visit popular China in the spring of 1972. “I will undertake this journey,” Nixon explained, “because I believe it is a journey for peace.” Today, China and the United States are each other’s largest trading partners and they maintain more than sixty bilateral working groups on a wide variety of topics.
The purest example of surprise diplomacy and its cathartic effect was the announcement by President Sadat, before the Parliament of Cairo on November 9, 1977, that he was ready to go immediately to Israel (with whom Egypt was officially at war since 1948) and to speak in front of the Knesset.
Fifteen months later, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed. This gesture of unprecedented political courage cost Sadat his life. He was assassinated four years later by Islamist extremists. But the peace between the two neighbours endures.
In February 1990, to provoke a catharsis, South African reformist President Frederik de Klerk also resorted to the surprise effect. He simultaneously announced the legalisation of the African National Congress and the liberation of its historical leader, Nelson Mandela. The two men went on to build together a reconciled South African society which is still functioning.
What effect will Donald Trump’s surprise have on peace? It’s too early to say. During the last year, Kim Jong-un’s strategy seemed to veer from one extreme to the other. Having explored the extremes with underground nuclear explosions and long-range missile tests crashing into the Sea of Japan, the young great leader, at the beginning of January 2018, took the opportunity of their Olympic Games to offer an olive branch to South Korea.
Friendly visits and working meetings immediately followed. By using South Korean President Moon as the conduit to invite President Trump, rather than preferring Russian or Chinese intermediation, Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be primarily a Korean nationalist. May that have seduced the American nationalist Donald Trump?
This article first appeared in Le Figaro.
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