Speaking to a large gathering at Rice University stadium in September 1962, President John Kennedy challenged his countrymen to place a man on the surface of the moon and return him safely to the earth. At the time, many of those countrymen thought his dream unattainable, at least within the timeframe of a single decade as the President suggested. Yet, in less than seven years, a team of scientists and engineers accomplished exactly what Kennedy envisioned.
Late in his presidency, Ronald Reagan challenged his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down” the Berlin Wall; a structure that had stood for more than a quarter century as a seeming permanent monument to the strength of the communist system. His critics, and even some in his own political Party, sloughed off Reagan’s challenge as nothing more than a catchy soundbite delivered by an eloquent but elderly president. A mere two years later, the Berlin Wall and the totalitarian regimes it personified, began crumbling.
Early this year, President Trump publicly broached the likelihood of a personal meeting with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Un, who just weeks before Trump had ridiculed as “Little Rocket Man.” Unsurprisingly, pundits were highly skeptical that a meeting between the two leaders would take place, and even if it did, that any meaningful substantive results would follow. But here we are, just three months after the Singapore Summit, and the leaders of the two Koreas — split apart and still technically in a state of war since 1950 — expressing optimism that the four nations directly involved in that oft-forgotten war (including China and the United States) will sign a peace treaty before the end of this year.
To perhaps a majority of decision-makers in Washington, New York, and elsewhere, believing such a scenario not only possible but likely would itself be deemed delusional. Democrats — who saw their last President, Barack Obama, constantly showered with praise as a visionary world leader throughout his eight years in office (including receiving the Nobel Peace Prize during his very first year as President) — scoff at the notion that Trump is capable of accomplishing something truly noteworthy in international affairs.
Were the metrics by which a leader is measured based on his or her rhetoric, Trump’s detractors would have a case to be made. His blustery rhetoric and confrontational Tweets easily can be — and often are — seen as reflecting a shallow and inattentive approach to serious issues; especially those involving matters of national security and diplomacy. Still, there is no mistaking the fact that things long-considered immutable in that part of the world in which North and South Korea reside, are changing.
The mainstream media in the United States may downplay and even ignore steps this Administration is taking in the Pacific Rim and elsewhere. Cable news producers and social media puppeteers at Facebook and Google may choose to ridicule Trump’s style and actions. And the Bizarro World that has enveloped the Supreme Court confirmation proceedings in our nation’s Capital, may continue to push substantive international news to the background.
However, what cannot be rightly ignored or dismissed is the fact that President Donald Trump has brought a perspective to the office he occupies that has been seen but rarely in our lifetimes. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had it; so did John Kennedy. Perhaps a few others, but not many; and certainly no other occupant of the White House since Reagan.
What exactly is this spark that appears to be among the qualities possessed by President Trump? Clearly it is not a formula subject to easy quantification; or quantification at all. Perhaps the person holding it does not expressly recognize they have it, or consciously choose its use at a particular moment. Regardless, it can be a game changer.
In the simplest terms, what we see in Mr. Trump’s actions is — to use a hackneyed but apt phrase — thinking outside the box; looking beyond the confines of traditional analysis. Where presidents before Reagan saw the Cold War as a permanent condition to be “dealt with,” he saw it as a condition to be overcome. As noted masterfully by Herbert Meyer in a February 2017 Imprimis essay, it was just such a mindset that led Reagan to ask questions of his foreign intelligence and military advisors that rearranged their thinking, in such a way as to focus on attacking the Soviet Union’s weaknesses, rather than on defending against its perceived strengths.
Perhaps because he is unshackled by Washington insiders and careerists, Trump seems unbound by traditional views of the world. Perhaps it is because he is not “educated” in the same manner as those who traditionally have pulled the levers of power in Washington. Whatever the reason, Trump’s willingness to reach out to the very strange Kim Jong-Un and to view that troubled peninsula as something more than a permanent military stalemate, has signaled to Seoul that there is a better path than the status quo; that it is okay to shake the hand of one’s adversary.
Whatever his shortcomings in other arenas, in charting this path President Trump has paved the way for a change on the world stage that rivals one of the last century’s greatest moments — the fall of the Soviet Union. For this, he rightly deserves credit.
With Speaker of the National Assembly of South Korea Chung Sye-kyun last November 7. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Author: Bob Barr