Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Danger of Photo-op Diplomacy

Charles Ray,

Image (not from entry) from

Recent satellite imagery of North Korea appears to show that country making substantial improvements to one of its nuclear research facilities. This comes just weeks after U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and Trump’s public announcement that ‘there’s no longer a nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula.’

Though marred by widely circulated images of Trump saluting a North Korean general, the summit was generally regarded as a positive step toward a diplomatic settlement of what could be one of the most dangerous situations of this century. As with many of the Trump Administration’s actions, though, this one seems to be mostly smoke and mirrors, and naïve, wishful thinking on the part of a president more impressed with appearance than substance.

In some ways this brings to mind George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ press appearance during the second Gulf War, just before things in Iraq went haywire. The difference this time, however, is that the stakes are infinitely higher, and the situation is even more dire. Iraq was found, after an exhaustive investigation by U.S. and international agencies, not to actually have nuclear weapons, despite some evidence of its efforts to get them. North Korea, as we well know, not only has a number of nuclear bombs, but has made great strides to mount them on missiles capable of reaching U.S. shores.

This tendency the U.S. president has of conducting off-the-cuff diplomacy, consisting of photos of smiling leaders shaking hands followed by rosy announcements of ‘victory,’ might play well to a certain audience, but it does nothing to change the reality on the ground. And, this latest imagery shows what those familiar with North Korea already know; North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, the only bargaining chip Kim has in dealing with his more powerful adversary.

It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with this latest development. Clearly a rebuke of his early, off-the-cuff assessment, will he admit he was premature in his announcement and take the necessary steps to get things back on track? Anyone who has observed the man during his time in the Oval Office, and who is willing to admit that when it comes to the complexities and nuances of foreign policy he’s clueless, will have to conclude that he won’t. Incapable of admitting mistakes and lashing out viciously at anyone who dares accuse him of being wrong, he’ll probably tweet some non sequitur, or even worse, ignore the whole thing. No, there is actually something worse he can, and might, do. As he did when the intelligence community published an assessment of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, or the FBI and DOJ did their jobs on the investigation of Russian involvement with the Trump campaign, he might tweet derogatory invective in an effort to undermine this latest finding.

When personal image is the thing foremost in your mind—his mind—and you appear to be ruled by ego gratification and the adulation of others, your actions are not likely to be rational; at least, not rational to rational people.

It would be nice to think that there are a few sane people working in the White House who will sit the man down and explain the ‘real’ world to him. Nice, but not bloody likely. This is a man who, like a mafia don, values personal loyalty above all, and who is not likely to listen to anyone trying to tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. In fact, that person is likely to be looking for a new job shortly after making the effort.

Public diplomacy [JB emphasis], reaching out to public audiences to get your message across, is an effective tool in the soft power toolbox, but public relations diplomacy, getting the right picture in front of the larges taudience [JB sic] to make yourself look good for a few moments, is a path to disorder,a nd [JB sic] a dangerous way to conduct international relations. As a matter of fact, it’s a pretty lousy way to conduct domestic affairs as well—but, that’s another story for another day.

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