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The U.S.-North Korea summit could be Trump’s ‘Nixon-to-China’ moment

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives Wednesday in Pyongyang, North Korea, traveling in advance of a summit planned between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump in the coming weeks.  (Matthew Lee/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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Editors’ note: This post is part of our look at the politics of the potential U.S.-North Korea talks. In another post, Sarah Kreps, Elizabeth Saunders and Ken Schultz explain why they are skeptical that President Trump has a “hawk’s advantage.” Here, Michaela Mattes and Jessica Weeks discuss their research on whether hawks have a domestic political advantage in making peace — an advantage that might help Trump sell the talks at home.

After the release of three U.S. prisoners Wednesday in North Korea, President Trump tweeted that the “Date & Place” for his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “set.” He’s now confirmed that the summit will be in Singapore on June 12.

The recent thaw in U.S.-North Korean relations has taken many foreign policy analysts by surprise.

Since Trump took office last year, some of his most memorable foreign policy statements targeted North Korea: From calling Kim a “sick puppy” and “Little Rocket Man,” to claims that the U.S. “nuclear button” is “bigger & more powerful,” to threatening North Korea with “fire and fury,” Trump’s hawkish tendencies were on clear display.

While many analysts have lamented Trump’s hawkish approach to foreign policy, is it possible the president’s reputation as a hawk actually helps with the domestic politics of making peace with North Korea?

No, Trump can’t count on a hawk’s advantage in making peace with North Korea

Hawks may enjoy a public opinion advantage

Several commentators have observed that Trump’s overtures to North Korea echo Richard Nixon’s embrace of Communist China in the early 1970s. Nixon’s policy not only led to better international relations with Beijing, but also proved to be a big success at home.

Nixon’s experience led to the adage “it took Nixon to go to China.” The logic centers on domestic politics: Voters are more supportive when a hawkish leader tries to reconcile with an enemy than when a dove extends the olive branch.

Because Nixon had established himself as a fervent anti-communist and critic of the Chinese government, he could reach out to Beijing — while a more peace-minded leader would have faced significant opposition. Fast-forward to 2018. Can Trump benefit from a similar dynamic? Does it take Trump to go to North Korea? On the basis of our research, we think the answer may be yes.

Peace overtures are risky domestically, but hawks are less likely to pay a high price at the polls later.

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Here’s how we did our research

We fielded a survey experiment in April and May 2017 to a representative sample of 1,200 U.S. citizens. We told respondents about a hypothetical president in the year 2027 and randomly assigned respondents to receive information that the president was known as either a hawk or a dove. (We also randomized whether the president was a Democrat or a Republican).

Respondents then learned about the president’s policy toward an international rival. We picked a China scenario because over the past 15 years, Americans have consistently viewed China as one of the “greatest enemies” of the United States — alongside Russia, North Korea and Iran.

We told participants that, in 2027, relations with China are very tense and provided other details about China’s government and military power. We then discussed the Arctic as a flash point of Sino-American relations.

We then told half of the respondents that the president pursued a conciliatory policy toward China: He removed troops and canceled Arctic military exercises. The other half learned that he had stayed with the status quo.

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Next, we asked participants whether they “approve of how President Richards is doing his job,” and followed up with questions designed to measure why they held those opinions. Finally, we told respondents about the result of the president’s gesture — China either reacted with friendship or by taking advantage of the United States — and measured each respondent’s approval one more time.

Peace is risky, but less so for hawks

Our experiment showed that making nice comes with domestic risks. Peaceful gestures were unpopular across the board; respondents disapproved more of both hawks and doves who chose conciliation rather than the status quo.

But we also found that conciliatory gestures had a much worse effect on job approval for doves than for hawks, even holding everything else constant. Compared with maintaining the status quo, a conciliatory gesture led to a 35 percent surge in disapproval for a dove — but only increased disapproval by 12 percent for a hawk. The hawk’s advantage is thus 23 percentage points — that is how much less public disapproval ensues when a hawk makes a peaceful gesture compared with a dove.

This hawk’s advantage existed not only right after the president’s initial gesture, but also after we told subjects how the adversary responded. As one might expect, our respondents punished both hawks and doves for a failed peace gesture — but doves significantly more so. If the gesture succeeded, the dove was still penalized, but the hawk was rewarded — this was the only time in our experiment that the president got a bump in public opinion.

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We also found that the hawk’s public opinion advantage happens for two underlying reasons. Voters are more confident that conciliation is in the national interest when it comes from a hawk, and they are more likely to view a hawk who pursues conciliation as a moderate when it comes to foreign policy.

Trump may be helped at home by his hawkishness 

What do our findings imply about Trump’s embrace of North Korea? Somewhat ironically, Trump, with his well-established reputation as a hawk, may be in a better domestic political position to improve relations with North Korea than a dove (say, President Barack Obama or former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) would have been.

Even if a Trump-Kim summit turns out to be a bust, Trump should experience lower public opinion costs than an Obama or Sanders would have. If the summit succeeds, the president may actually get a public opinion bump — while a dove’s policy would still be regarded with suspicion. This is because the public feels more confident if a hawk such as Trump calls for peace, and because a peaceful Trump seems more moderate than many have feared.

Of course, our hypothetical scenario involved a stronger enemy than North Korea. Yet if our research is any guide, pursuing peace with North Korea presents a public opinion risk for Trump, but much less so than it would for a dovish president.

The American public might feel more reassured that it is a hawk like Trump who is the president pursuing this new cooperative policy. It could indeed take a Trump to go to North Korea.

Michaela Mattes is associate professor of international relations at the University of California at Berkeley. 

Jessica L.P. Weeks is associate professor of political science and Trice Faculty Scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.