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Here’s Hoping Trump-Kim Isn’t Like Kennedy-Khrushchev

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In one sense, President Donald Trump’s decision to negotiate directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is unprecedented: The heads of state of their respective countries have never previously met in any forum. But Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to meet one-on-one with a foreign adversary in a high-stakes summit. History offers plenty of examples Trump would do well to study.

Presidents, it turns out, rarely achieve very much in such negotiations. Most often, these meetings unsettle traditional allies and disappoint eager citizens. They rarely produce breakthroughs. And the biggest risk is that an acrimonious and ill-prepared meeting can push the two sides closer to war.

That is what happened in June 1961, when a tough-talking and impatient new American president, John F. Kennedy, traveled to Vienna to meet with a wily and well-rehearsed Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. In Kennedy’s own words, the summit was the “roughest thing in my life.” Khrushchev “just beat [the] hell out of me.”

Kennedy was, in fact, quite tough at Vienna, refusing to back down from American resistance to communist advances in Europe and Asia. Kennedy also refused to concede to Soviet demands for disarmament. The president arrived in Vienna with a firm grasp of U.S. strategic priorities, and he stuck to them.

Kennedy’s problems arose because he did not have a constructive strategic proposal to offer at the meeting. He arrived in Vienna prepared to charm and cajole his adversary as he often did in encounters with constituents and allies. He was not prepared to address the Soviet leader’s needs or create new mutually beneficial realities in areas of Cold War tension, particularly in Berlin, Cuba, and Indochina.

The leader of the free world always looks weak when he cannot promise a path to improved circumstances for citizens on both sides of the negotiating table. The presumption for progress rests on the shoulders of the president because he is so powerful, and he suffers a major defeat when he fails to deliver in a one-on-one setting. Kennedy learned this lesson in Vienna, and the near-nuclear apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis was a sobering consequence.

When they met, Khrushchev........

© Foreign Policy