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Are Trump’s cozy relationships with foreign adversaries connected to a broader strategy?

President Trump has become the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea, joining the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, for a meeting, smiles and a handshake. Trump argues that his personal relationships with autocrats and the leaders of traditional American adversaries strengthen U.S. leverage. But do they? John Yang reports and William Brangham talks to Amb. William Burns.

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  • William Brangham:

    President Trump returned last night from a whirlwind trip to Japan for the G20 and a historic visit to South Korea and, for a brief moment, North Korea.

    As John Yang tells us, Mr. Trump's particular style of diplomacy, with American allies and with adversaries, was on full display.

  • John Yang:

    From fire and fury to a historic first step. President Trump became the first sitting American commander in chief to set foot in North Korea, talk of war from two years now long replaced by smiles, as Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands Sunday.

    They then met for nearly an hour in the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreas for 66 years. Today, North Korean state media hailed the impromptu summit.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The top leaders of North Korea and the United States agreed to keep in close touch in the future, and resume and push forward productive dialogue for achieving a new breakthrough in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and in bilateral relations.

  • John Yang:

    Before embarking for the DMZ Sunday, Mr. Trump took credit for making the hastily organized visit happen. It was the third time the leaders had met face to face.

  • President Donald Trump:

    President Obama wanted to meet, and Chairman Kim would not meet him. The Obama administration was begging for a meeting. They were begging for meetings constantly. And Chairman Kim would not meet with him. And, for some reason, we have a certain chemistry or whatever.

  • John Yang:

    Former aides to Mr. Obama shot back in unison that he never sought a meeting with the North Korean leader.

    A new round of talks are expected to begin in the next few weeks with low-level working groups, which will lay the groundwork for any future higher-level negotiations. Their last attempt at nuclear talks broke down in February.

    The U.S. had been demanding the North completely dismantle its nuclear program. But The New York Times reported the U.S. may now settle for a nuclear freeze. The president's national security adviser, John Bolton, was quick to dismiss that claim. He took to Twitter, calling the article "a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the president" and added, "There should be consequences."

    Meanwhile, overseas, the North's neighbors welcomed signs of progress. From China:

  • Geng Shuang (through translator):

    China has always been committed to realizing denuclearization, maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula and resolving issues through dialogue.

  • John Yang:

    And even Japan:

  • Yasutoshni Nishimura (through translator):

    The Japanese government considers this meeting an opportunity to restart U.S. and North Korea's process.

  • John Yang:

    President Trump's meeting with Kim was the latest in a series of recent attempts to ingratiate himself with some of the world's most authoritarian leaders. That was on full display this week at the G20 summit in Japan.

    He playfully told Russian President Vladimir Putin not to meddle in the 2020 U.S. election and assured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States won't impose sanctions on Turkey for buying Russian S-400 missile defense systems.

    Mr. Trump also had praise for the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in spite of his role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. But, at the same time, the president continues to take aim at some of America's greatest allies, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he's criticized for not doing more to boost defense spending.

    He also dealt a setback to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after criticizing a decades-old security treaty with Japan as unfair.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on the pros and cons of working with controversial world leaders, we turn to Ambassador William Burns.

    He worked in the U.S. Foreign Service for 34 years, was U.S. ambassador to Russia and to Jordan, and he helped lay the groundwork for what became the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

    He details his career in his book "The Back Channel," which is just out.

    Ambassador Burns, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • William Burns:

    It's great to be with you.

  • William Brangham:

    So, we have just seen an encapsulation of the president on the world stage giving a very warm embrace to adversaries and enemies, we might call them, and a very cold shoulder and criticism of allies.

    What do you make of the president's approach?

  • William Burns:

    I think it's a mistake.

    I think, while personal relationships matter enormously in diplomacy, and you have to deal with some very difficult autocratic leaders, when you put your emphasis on ingratiating yourself with autocrats, and acting dismissively toward our allies and friends, that's a misuse, I think, of America's leverage in the world.

    What sets us apart from lonelier autocratic powers, like Russia and China, is our capacity to draw on alliances and mobilize coalitions of countries.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, with someone like Kim Jong-un, who — I mean, the president made this historic visit yesterday to North Korea, stepping over, which no president has ever done.

    And the president keeps saying, my relationship — just as you described — it is my personal relationship with Kim Jong-un that is going to move negotiations forward.

    What do you make of that approach?

  • William Burns:

    Well, I think personal relationships have to be connected to realistic strategies.

    And so far what the president has done in what are effectively three summit meetings with Kim Jong-un are long on showmanship and symbols and short on substance.

    So, the real test now is, how do you use that personal relationship to connect to the hard-nosed business of diplomacy and actually producing something in terms of limiting North Korea's nuclear missile program and ultimately hoping to achieve full denuclearization?

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think, with this most recent meeting this weekend and the announced plans for ongoing talks, that we are on the path to that?

  • William Burns:

    I hope that's the case, but it remains to be seen.

    I mean, I think the test is going to be whether the president and his advisers are able to pursue a realistic strategy. I don't think there's a chance in the world that, in the foreseeable future, Kim Jong-un is going to fully denuclearize.

    So the question is, can you take steps toward that ultimate goal? And if you set aside the irony of what I'm about to say, you could take a page from our nuclear negotiations with the Iranians, where we first did an interim deal, which froze and rolled back their program, introduced some quite intrusive verification and monitoring procedures, all in return for very limited sanctions relief.

    We preserved the bulk of that leverage for the comprehensive talks. But it remains to be seen whether that's going to be a strategy that President Trump pursues.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to talk about Iran in just a moment.

    But, first, let's talk a little bit about a man that you know very, very well, Vladimir Putin. And we saw that meeting with President Trump and Putin this weekend, where the president seemed to brush off election meddling and holding Russia's feet to the fire about that.

    The president again argues that his relationship with Putin is what is paying dividends. What do you make of that?

  • William Burns:

    I don't think it's the right approach.

    And I think, to Vladimir Putin, that's exactly what it appears. It appears to be an effort to ingratiate, which, in Putin's mind — I mean, if you could have seen the cartoon balloon coming out of Putin's head at that moment, I think it would have read, "What an easy mark," because, from his point of view, efforts to ingratiate are signs of weakness and manipulability.

  • William Brangham:

    Presidents have to deal with unsavory characters a lot. And I think of Nixon and Mao and FDR and Stalin.

    I mean, your own former boss, President Obama, had to deal with the Iranians for this Iranian nuclear deal.

  • William Burns:


  • William Brangham:

    If the goal is worthy, isn't this sometimes what presidents just have to do?

  • William Burns:

    I think dealing with autocrats in some ways comes with the territory. But I think you have to avoid traps. You got to avoid the trap of thinking that the object of the exercise is just to get along.

    Avoid the trap of trying to ingratiate yourself. You have to be careful not to pull your punches on American values or on other concerns. That's not going to get you anywhere. And I think you also have to understand that a lot of our leverage comes from our alliances and our partners in the world.

    And you have to draw on those in dealing with very difficult to autocrats. So none of that's an argument against dealing with them directly, but you have to do it with our eyes open and do it in a very hard-nosed way.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, the president would argue that his relationships help foster those, those negotiations, and that he needs to be tough on our allies to make them, in the case of NATO, pay more on their defense spending, that he argues he is moving American values.

    Maybe it doesn't look the way that the diplomatic community likes it to look, but that he is moving our values in his own way.

  • William Burns:

    Well, the president is right to push some of our NATO allies to spend more on defense.

    He's not the first president to do that, just as he's right to push against some of our rivals, like China, to push against their predatory trade and investment practices.

    But how we does it is important. So, in the case of China, you would want to logically make common cause with partners and allies like the European Union and Japan, who share a lot of those concerns about Chinese behavior. And, instead, we start second- and third-front trade conflicts with them.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, let's turn to the developments in Iran.

    As I mentioned, you were right at the beginning and helped forge the opening that led to this nuclear deal. Iran announced today that they are breaking one part of that with regards to low-enriched uranium.

    What do you make of this development?

  • William Burns:

    Oh, I think it's a really unfortunate step. Sadly, I think it's entirely predictable after, a little more than a year ago, President Trump decided to abandon our compliance with the Iranian comprehensive nuclear agreement.

    So it's very unfortunate. I think we're pointed on a path right now with Iran that could easily lead toward greater collisions down the road. I think what we're embarked upon is a strategy of coercive diplomacy, which so far at least is all coercion and no diplomacy.

  • William Brangham:

    Ambassador William Burns, thank you very much for being here.

  • William Burns:

    Thanks so much.

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