Turns out that when Donald Trump recently warned Iran’s president on Twitter that more threats against the United States would bring “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” it was just the first part of his message. The second was, essentially, “AND IF YOU’D RATHER TALK, I’D LOVE TO!” Or, as he put it on Monday at a press conference with Italy’s prime minister, “I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” with “no preconditions.”
When Barack Obama, who Trump accuses of being soft on America’s adversaries, said he was willing to meet with the leaders of foes such as Iran and North Korea without preconditions back in 2007, he was ridiculed by Republicans and even Democrats like Hillary Clinton as hopelessly naive. But at times, Trump has embraced a surprisingly Obama-like approach to the power of dialogue. “I’ll meet with anybody. I believe in meeting,” Trump said on Monday, “especially when you’re talking about potentials of war and death and famine and lots of other things.”
There was a hint of this even during his campaign for president, when Trump offered to have a hamburger with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un; and another hint last fall, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he had turned down a proposed meeting with Trump. Since then, Trump has gotten two major summits under his belt, and he’s treated the summit as something more than a favorite tactic: He has cast it as itself a remedy for the country’s most intractable foreign-policy challenges. Trump meets with Kim and announces, in reference to a danger decades in the making, that there is “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”; he shakes hands with Vladimir Putin and proclaims, in regard to a decades-old superpower rivalry, that while the U.S.–Russia “relationship has never been worse than it is now … that changed as of about four hours ago.”
The spectacle of such summits surely appeals to Trump’s taste for theatrics and ratings bonanzas—for made-for-TV “wins.” But they’re also critical components of a process Trump appears to have pursued with threats of war with North Korea, trade war with the European Union, and now a showdown with Iran: Escalate tensions in order to de-escalate them, and then claim victory. “Begin by hurling insults at the other side,” Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post last week, in summarizing the approach. “Threaten extreme consequences. Then meet with the other side, backpedal and triumphantly announce that you have saved the world from a crisis that your rhetoric and actions caused in the first place.” In the North Korean case, it took eight months for Trump to go from “fire and fury” to offering a summit. In the Iranian case, the shift from threats of unprecedented destruction to offers of unprecedented diplomatic engagement took about a week—though it could always shift back.
The leader-to-leader summit—and especially the private one-on-one sit-down between those leaders without advisers present—is also a pure distillation of what appears to be Trump’s preferred method of handling international affairs: a coercive, transactional, highly personalized bilateralism in which, as the political theorist Danielle Allen recently put it, “global politics is conducted as a series of deals with Donald Trump.” The summit is the foreign-policy equivalent of Trump’s famous declaration during the presidential campaign that, when it came to America’s many afflictions, “I alone can fix it.” The key to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis is not some unwieldy six-party negotiation, but rather Trump sizing up Kim Jong Un within seconds of meeting him. Trump withdraws from the multinational nuclear deal with Iran and proposes a tête-à-tête with Iran’s leader instead. “We could work something out that’s meaningful,” Trump explained on Monday, “not the waste of paper that the [Iran] deal was.”
Trump administration officials have acknowledged the central role summitry is now playing in the president’s management of foreign relations. “The summit in and of itself is an important deliverable,” Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, told reporters during a briefing call before Trump met Putin in Helsinki, Finland. (National-Security Adviser John Bolton said almost exactly the same thing.) “I would just point to the summit with Kim Jong Un, which has already shown the possibility for reduced tension on the Korean peninsula and certainly throughout Northeast Asia. And if you can imagine what reduced tension could do in the case of U.S.–Russia and Europe–Russia, it would be on a much bigger scale.”
The drawback of this approach is that sometimes a summit is just a summit, not a solution. Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un certainly reduced tensions on the Korean peninsula, but so far it has not resulted in North Korea making any major concessions on its nuclear-weapons program—the reason Trump met with Kim in the first place. The summit with Putin has, in the near term at least, actually increased tensions between the United States and Russia because of Trump’s refusal to confront Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, without yielding any concrete achievements as of yet—not even a joint-summit statement.
On Monday, Mike Pompeo seemed to backtrack a bit on his boss’s offer to meet with Iran’s leaders without preconditions, suggesting to CNBC that the administration would set a high bar for a summit. “The president wants to meet with folks to solve problems,” the secretary of state said. “If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have a conversation with them.” What remains unclear from the administration’s track record is whether, if Iran doesn’t meet those conditions and a summit happens regardless, any of those goals can be accomplished through a conversation alone.