In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, President Trump made a remarkable admission. He was describing his conversations with President Xi Jinping of China, whose nation he had insisted could solve the North Korean nuclear standoff easily if only it set its minds to it. Xi argued otherwise, Trump recalled:
He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not—it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have—that they had a tremendous power over China. I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent, but they also—a lot of goods come in. But it’s not what you would think.
The anecdote is telling for a couple reasons. Many people have said Trump is ignorant on policy issues, but in this case Trump himself fessed up to having had no real understanding of the history of the Korean peninsula. In fact, he knew so little that in just 10 minutes, his own view of the conflict was turned around.
The message this sends to foreign leaders is that Trump is not well-versed in the issues about which he confidently pontificates, but that he can quickly be persuaded to come around to their view—hardly the strength Trump promised he would bring to the White House. The Chinese government seems to have grasped that Trump was a blank slate, pushing for a face-to-face meeting between the two men early in Trump’s term so that Xi could help set the agenda and terms for their relationship.