North Korea at the Table: Trump follows Nixon’s lead with foray into the unknown

In February 1972 Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), meeting Chairman Mao Zedong in addition to a slew of other political figures within the notoriously secretive communist regime.

Nixon meets Mao

Nixon called it the ‘week that changed the world’ and whilst one might attribute some hubris to this statement it is probably an accurate portrayal of a monumental turning point in history.

Ravaged by a fervent personality cult surrounding Chairman Mao – which blinded followers to his destructive policies such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – China found itself in isolation. Nixon’s visit opened up the possibility of a rapprochement with the Western world and the economic benefits this would ultimately bring to a country with a massive population and a burgeoning industrial base.

Brainwashed students attacked ‘capitalist roaders’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ during Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Since the Communists had won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang to flee the mainland for Taiwan, the USA and its allies had refused to recognise the PRC. Instead, it was the Republic of China (ROC) that was acknowledged by Washington as the rightful ruler over the mainland, a stance formalised by President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Taipei in 1960.

Eisenhower and Chiang Kai-shek in 1960

The shock prompted by Nixon’s visit a dozen years later – announced live on television the previous year – was therefore understandable. However, the machinations of Henry Kissinger and the PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai had laid the foundations for the trip, which would serve to drive a further wedge between the PRC and its disappointed former patron, the Soviet Union.

How much of an impact the meeting had on the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War is debatable but no doubt Nixon’s ‘opening up’ of China – in a diplomatic sense – reduced tensions with a potential enemy. By subsequently officially recognising the PRC as the legitimate and sole rulers of China, the USA sowed the seeds for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the years after Mao’s death.

The impact of Deng’s policies are less debatable, for they enabled China to become the world’s second largest economy, strengthened the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – now under the firm control of Xi Jinping – and made the PRC a major geopolitical player across the globe. A world without a US-Chinese bilateral relationship is now unthinkable, not to mention undesirable.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Don’t expect President Donald Trump’s slated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to have such a positive impact. Indeed, will it have any major impact? Though the announcement of the summit was equally, if not more surprising, than the revelation of Nixon’s China jaunt, neither Trump nor Kim act with a level of subtlety or concession that allow for meaningful engagement.

Perhaps the level of bellicosity and brutal honesty at which these two ‘madmen’ operate is the only reason the meeting is happening in the first place. One would hope that senior diplomats and military figures within each administration will be present to temper their leaders’ excessive tendencies, for the opportunities abounding are unprecedented.

Alas, Trump listens and answers to nobody but himself, whilst the Kim dynasty has fostered a personality cult comparable to the darkest days of Mao. To challenge Kim’s instincts goes against a human’s natural tendency for self-preservation.

Realistically, the harsher sanctions being imposed on North Korea are taking hold. Yet as long as the upper echelons of the regime remain ensconced in luxury, and the military that girdles it stays onside, significant change is unlikely. The Kims have shown their willingness to allow their people to starve, confident that any popular uprising would either be suppressed by the military or, if necessary, by China, which has no desire to see chaos on its borderlands.

China fears that the collapse of the Kim regime will lead to a flood of civilians crossing its border from North Korea

A nuclear arsenal remains the only effective means to ensure the security and longevity of the Kim dynasty. Nothing President Trump says or does – and we wait with bated breath to see what on earth he will decide to do at the summit – is likely to change matters for the better. North Korea does not have the same potential to break out of its shell as the PRC had at the time of Nixon’s visit, nor does it have the inclination.

Sadly, the chance to destroy the nascent nuclear regime of North Korea has been missed by previous administrations. Trump can’t be blamed for that. Conned by the machinations of Kim Jong-Il in the 1990s, undermined by Chinese companies and banks that continue to siphon resources to the hermit state, and unable to break the failsafe that Beijing offers the North Korean regime, nuclear tensions in Northeast Asia are here to stay.

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Trump Stirs up the Holy Land: Jerusalem Recognition Revives Crusading Passion

So, President Donald Trump has done what the whole world knew he was going to do; he has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking an international precedent despite warnings from allies and enemies both at home and abroad.

A defiant POTUS declares Jerusalem capital of Israel

The next few years promise a relocation of the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, although how practical that will be on a security footing is something even this blundering administration will need to consider.

Unsurprisingly, the move has caused uproar in the Arab world, with protesters taking to the streets to burn effigies of Trump and global leaders strongly rebuking the incendiary announcement. That the recognition also further destabilises the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process – despite Trump’s claims to the contrary – is somewhat of an aside.

Burning an effigy of President Trump the West Bank city of Nablus

From Pope Urban’s call for crusade in 1095, Jerusalem has served as a battleground – the Holy Grail – of the Abrahamic religions. It changed hands between Christendom and Islam on several occasions, men travelling from far flung places to spill blood in the name of their God.

Crusaders and Seljuk Turks do battle during the First Crusade at Dorylaeum, Anatolia

Of course the Jews have remained present in Jerusalem for most of that time – indeed since the days predating Christianity and Islam as they like to remind us – even if actual power was only bestowed upon them by the victorious parties (mainly the Truman administration) post-WWII.

The monumental decision to create a new religious state – whilst understandable given the centuries of horrific Jewish persecution which had culminated in the Holocaust – has resulted in intermittent warfare ever since, and has added another simmering rivalry to that already existing in the region between the perennially fighting Sunnis and Shiites.

Why has Trump done it? To appease the pro-Israel lobby that voted for him in large numbers during the last election is the obvious answer. In fact, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility for the President to have suggested a new Christian crusade to the Holy Land, such is his dedication to his Evangelical base.

Trump went overboard to impress the pro-Israel lobby during the election campaign

Trump is also playing to type, sowing divisions where they already existed. What makes your rivals weaker makes you stronger right?

Some have advocated more pragmatic and sentimental reasons; that Jerusalem is the economic and political capital of Israel, ‘home to Israel’s legislature, its supreme court and the prime minister’ , or that it ‘reflects the reality that [the] city is [the] historic center of [the] Jewish faith’.

Jews at the wailing wall, 1891. Parts of the wall predate Christianity and Islam

Either way, it takes little to incense the Arabs and whilst Trump’s move isn’t particularly beneficial to the US – who Israel will continue to rely upon for years to come no matter how strained relations are – it is unlikely to create major change or crisis.

There are arguments that it will encourage further ‘illegal’ Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, though this is likely to continue regardless. Indeed, Trump has left the door open for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The claim that the move has irrevocably destroyed the potential for a two-state solution, however, is ridiculous. This is, and has been since Israel’s inception, a distant dream. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing to make the concessions to make it happen, no matter what international diplomacy can achieve.

Whatever Trump’s rhetoric and actions, the Holy Land will continue to inspire and divide, to inflame passion and hatred, to breed reconciliation and war. The world will watch on as the cycle continues, whilst the militant proxies of the region’s powers seek to gain the smallest of footholds wherever they can. They are left to take up the crusading mantle of the past.

3,000 years on the Jews are entrenched in Israel and Jerusalem is beyond sacred to them. That it is to many Muslims and Christians, too, will not change the geopolitical status quo.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – sacred to Christians
Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount – sacred to Muslims

The bloodshed of the infidel will continue to stain the holiest of monuments, memories of crusade and defiance infusing energy into every brick that help to make Jerusalem one of the most captivating cities to visit.

What President Trump says will never change this.