With the release of three U.S. prisoners in North Korea, face-to-face talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to be on the horizon. He’s now confirmed that the talks will be in Singapore on June 12. After a year of bellicose rhetoric on North Korea, does Trump’s hawkish stance give him a political advantage to make a deal with the enemy?
Of course, some commentators have already noted parallels with President Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to China, even if not all observers are convinced that the analogy is apt from a geopolitical perspective.
But a host of research, including our forthcoming paper in World Politics, suggests that Trump may not gain as much leverage from his hawkish stance on North Korea as the “Nixon-to-China” phenomenon suggests — and that he may not find it as simple to walk Nixon’s path as he expects.
Here are four things to know about the politics behind the 2018 summit.
1. Why might there be a Nixon-to-China effect?
When a leader with a hawkish reputation forges a peace agreement with a distrusted adversary, voters are more likely to believe that it is a good deal than a bargain promoted by a leader perceived as overly eager to make peace. As Michaela Mattes and Jessica Weeks’s forthcoming research shows, the public penalizes hawks who make peace less than doves who make the same conciliatory gesture — and hawks might even get a political boost if the peace is successful.
There might also be partisan political benefits for acting “against type.” Scholars have long pointed to different “party brands” on foreign policy. Party brands often boil down to Democrats as “doves” vs. Republicans as “hawks.”
These stereotypes can, in turn, affect how voters respond to the same action taken by different parties. A Democrat’s conciliatory move may confirm voter suspicions that the party is too soft. But the very same gesture from a Republican can reassure voters that their leaders are not warmongers.
Republicans have an additional advantage when they make peace deals. When a Democratic president makes a deal, Republicans might attack it as too accommodating. But Republicans are likely to support a deal made by a Republican president — thereby protecting his right flank — and Democrats are naturally less likely to attack it.
2. But it’s not just Republicans who can “go to China.”
In our forthcoming research, we find that Republicans have less of an advantage in making deals than the “Nixon-to-China” story suggests. We examine nuclear-arms-control agreements, about which some have argued that Republicans have indeed secured bigger arsenal cuts. But we show that Democratic presidents — even those perceived as relatively dovish — also can make arms-control agreements.
For Democratic presidents, the key is to make a side deal to satisfy an “endorser” in Congress who will signal to others that voting for ratification is safe from a national security perspective. For example, President Barack Obama secured the December 2010 New START ratification by promising billions of dollars to modernize the nuclear arsenal — a key demand of Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican point man on the treaty.
So Democrats can “go to China” on arms control; the ticket is just more expensive.
We also show, however, that political polarization tends to increase that ticket price. If the deal costs too much, a dovish president may seek to sidestep congressional opposition by enacting the agreement in a form that avoids ratification, as Obama did with the Iran nuclear deal. The downside of this strategy is that it deprives the agreement of bipartisan buy-in and ties its fate to a change in administration, as Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement attests.
3. Trump might be too hawkish on North Korea to play the Nixon-to-China card
The Nixon-to-China story has a tension at its core: While hawks may find it easier to sell a deal at home, they may be less willing to make the concessions needed to get the deal done. Although bellicose threats can help bring an adversary to the table, a successful deal also requires credible assurances that disarmament will not lead to further threats and demands.
So the hawk/olive branch theory works only if the hawk is moderate enough to make concessions, as Nixon did in 1972 when he accepted Beijing’s stance that Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China were “one China.”
In 2018, though, are the preferences of Kim and Trump too far apart to make a bargain? Between his threats of “fire and fury” on North Korea and his announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, it’s not clear that Trump is moderate or credible enough to slip into Nixon’s shoes.
4. Polarization and voter inattention might make it harder for Trump to reap political benefits from a North Korea summit
Even if the summit goes smoothly, political polarization might also undermine Trump’s potential political benefits. Although Nixon got a boost after his trip to China, large and sustained boosts in popularity from foreign-policy events tend to happen when people who identify with the opposite party rally to the president’s side. The intense polarization in the United States now makes this less likely.
Even if Democrats in Congress are supportive, or at least not critical, of a deal with North Korea, Democratic voters may disapprove simply because it involves Trump. This phenomenon of “negative partisanship” also affected how voters saw George W. Bush’s actions during the Iraq War, despite the acquiescence of Democrats in Congress.
And it’s not clear that voters will pay much attention to the details. They may forget as media coverage fades.
One need only look at perhaps the most significant national security moment of Obama’s tenure — the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama got a boost in approval after Bin Laden’s death. It lasted only a few weeks.
Sarah E. Kreps (@sekreps) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. She is the author, most recently, of “Taxing Wars: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy” (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Kenneth A. Schultz (@kschultz3580) is professor of political science at Stanford University.