Ronald Reagan’s Missing Overcoat
There is nothing wrong with American Presidents meeting dictators. FDR met more than once with Josef Stalin during World War II. Nixon met Mao. Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev. American Presidents can meet with autocratic leaders, so long as America is getting something out of the relationship. In the examples I just gave, America was going to benefit in some way that you could hold your nose and make at the very least a temporary alliance, but there was always something the United States was going to get. The meeting is less transactional than it is about values and strength.
Case in point: Ronald Reagan met Gorbachev for the first time in November 1985 in Geneva. The image I remember from that event was President Reagan waiting outside for Gorbachev to show up. Reagan is wearing a suit, but no overcoat even though it is cold in Geneva. His aides begged him to wear the overcoat, be he declines. Gorbachev’s limo arrives and he gets out wearing an overcoat and a hat. Ronald Reagan, the nearly 75-year-old President, bounds down the stairs eagerly to greet his Soviet counterpart. He reaches out to shake Gorbachev’s hand. The images of that first meeting are striking. Reagan not wearing a coat, while Gorbachev does. Reagan coming down the stairs not like a frail old man but as if he were 40 years younger to greet the Soviet leader who was 20 years younger than he. While this was a summit in order for the two powers to meet and ultimately start reducing their nuclear weapons: Reagan also was communicating another message. Not wearing a coat was a way of signaling that Reagan, and by extension, the United States was coming to this summit from a position of strength.
Reagan was an actor and understood stagecraft. He also knew he was President of the United States so what he did represented the nation. The US was not an equal of the Soviet Union, but its superior. But even though it was superior, it was willing to engage the USSR to bring about a lasting peace.
I think about that in light of President Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the DMZ. The highlight of the meeting was President Trump taking a step into North Korea. There is something historic about it, but it is not Reagan meeting Gorbachev. Even though this was a big event, it felt rather small.
There isn’t anything wrong with Trump meeting the North Korean leader even if he is a murderous dictator. But if you are going to meet with a shady character like Kim Jong Un, you need to get something out of it. Trump should have left the Korean peninsula with some agreement that North Korea would dismantle their nuclear sites or even allows for families on both sides of the borders to meet each other. But nothing happened. While Trump got nothing, Kim got everything. Having the leader of the free world come to meet you at the DMZ only elevates Kim. Kim knows what this means to the world, something that is lost to President Trump.
None of this should be surprising. Unlike Reagan, Trump is not concerned about what is best for the United States. Trump is concerned about Trump. He likes autocrats because they are what he wants to be: a President with few if any checks on his power. The autocrats know how to flatter him, which makes him able to ignore their sins.
But what’s even more unsettling is something said by writer Phillip Rotner. Writing in the Bulwark, Rotner notes that Trump thinks he is the world’s greatest dealmaker. But the dealmaker has not really made any memorable deals with some of the world’s most shady characters. Not with Mohamed Bin Salman, not with Vladamir Putin, and not with Kim Jong Un. He has made no deals, but has given every indication that he will roll over and let the dictators do what they want.
Rotner includes a quote from former diplomat Richard Haas who says about the Trump foreign policy that “we used to stand for something.” America has never been perfect and yes, we can be rather hypocritical on the world stage. But our presidents understood they represent a nation and the ideas behind its founding. Reagan understood he carried the values of a nation when he met Gorbachev. But Trump doesn’t carry those values. He carries his narcissism, and he wants to be loved by powerful men. But he has no concern about human rights or equality. He has no concern of spreading American values. What matters to him is spreading the Trump brand.
Rotner paints a picture of the dire implications of Trump’s foreign policy:
Haass talked to Morning Joe about America’s loss of its moral compass. He presented a lightening-round of Trumpian diplomacy: “With the Chinese we don’t talk about Hong Kong or the repression of the Uighurs in camps. With the Russians, you ignore the election meddling. With the Turks, he blames everything on the Obama administration, meanwhile he’s reopened the possibility of arms sales despite everything they’re doing. With the North Koreans we ignore what’s going on domestically. The Saudis we ignore, and he exaggerates their domestic accomplishments.”
Trump’s retreat from the values that defined the post-World War II era of American exceptionalism has immediate negative consequences, above and beyond the long-term damage it does to America’s unique place in the world (as if that weren’t enough).
It’s a gift to the tyrants of the world. It gives them the one thing they most covet:
America will no longer exact a price for even the most blatant violations of human rights and human dignity. Mass starvation and genocide? None of our business. Repression of free speech and jailing of dissidents will not stand in the way of trade deals. Murdering journalists will not put you in America’s doghouse. Moscow’s efforts to undermine democracy and cast doubt on U.S. alliances won’t come between Donny and Vlad.
What you do in your country is irrelevant. We don’t care. All we want is to do business with you.
Ronald Reagan failed to put on an overcoat that cold November morning in Geneva. But he put on the values of his nation. When Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un at the DMZ, he failed to put something on him as well: