Every summit between world leaders is, to a certain extent, theater. The meetings are highly choreographed, the photo ops are staged and the news conferences televised.
When Trump and Kim met for the first time, in July 2018, some even suggested that their meeting, with all of its pomp and pageantry, was the product of a global obsession with reality television: two men, always aware of the cameras, putting on a show. And this week’s summit sequel in Hanoi had all the makings of a (high-profile, high-stakes) reality-show episode.
As any reality television viewer knows, the episode starts not with the opening scene but the teaser — the “this season on” or “scenes from the last episode of ... ” Trump knew that, too.
“Trump knows how to set up cliffhangers,” said Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on nonproliferation (and, incidentally, a fan of reality programs like “Real Housewives” and “The Shahs of Sunset”). He pointed to a tweet sent out by the U.S. president in which Trump dangled the prospect of denuclearization.
“They did a good job building expectations,” Narang said.
The lead-up to the summit included some reality television classics. There was the much-hyped meeting of the contestants. There was a dinner, that favorite scene of reality television producers everywhere — it’s always over dinner that people on reality television get to know one another, be it a date on “The Bachelor” or a “Real Housewives” girls’ night out that turns into a juicy confrontation.
Before both sides got together for negotiations, there was a one-on-one meeting between Kim and Trump. On some programs, that’s a reward (a private date!). On others, like “Survivor,” it can mean treachery, punishment or psychological warfare — sometimes all three.
There was even a character cast to play the spoiler. If Jade on cycle six of “America’s Next Top Model” was not here to become America’s Next Top Best Friend, national security adviser John Bolton was not, experts say, here to acquiesce to North Korean requests.
Trump says the deal fell apart because he walked away, as the United States could not possibly meet Kim’s requirement that the United States lift all of its sanctions on North Korea. But some North Korea watchers suspect it was Kim who walked away after someone pushed Trump to ask for more on an interim deal. “It sounds like this is a Bolton special,” said Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and former special assistant to President Barack Obama.
In either event, the thing that was teased before the summit — the deal — never happened. Reality television viewers know the feeling all too well — ask anyone watching this season’s of “The Bachelor” and they’ll tell you they are still waiting to see a teased scene of the main contestant, Colton, dramatically jumping over a fence.
“The best thing about reality TV is because it’s reality, it’s always a win-win no matter what happens. People are gonna keep watching,” Narang said. Because the summit collapsed, he said, both sides may get the message that differences can’t be solved on the world stage at the 11th hour, re-empowering working-level talks between the two countries. But either way, he said, “a twist like this keeps people interested.”