Opinion | White House

Why the president should meet with dictators

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

In the midst of remarks at the New York Economic Club last week, President Trump made a brief but important aside about diplomacy. "When I meet with the leaders of countries, as they come in - kings and queens and prime ministers and presidents and dictators - I meet them all," he said. "Anybody who wants to come in - dictators, it's okay, come on in. Whatever is good for the United States. We want to help our people."

Despite its flawed delivery, the substance of Trump's comment is hardly scandalizing: The president should meet with dictators.

The president's apparently off-the-cuff phrasing was flippant and resultant reports cast his willingness to meet with dictators as a mercenary failure to prioritize democracy and human rights, an inappropriately personal boast, or even trolling.

These interpretations overlook a critical point: Perhaps nowhere is diplomacy more needful than in relations with unfriendly and otherwise objectionable governments with which we may well be drawn into war if we refuse to talk. Dictators are not "okay," but negotiating with them is often necessary.

Trump's announcements of affection for autocrats-his declarations of "love" for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, for example, and boasts of a "great relationship" with the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte or a "long" friendship with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan-have clouded this issue. Accusations that such language lends an undue legitimacy to brutal regimes are fair, but extending that critique to a wholesale rejection of diplomacy with governments like these is naïve and reckless.

The danger here is on full display in U.S. relations with North Korea and Iran, both of which have oppressive governments. Kim runs a prison state that miniaturizes the murderous communism of the 20th century, and Iran's theocracy has a horrible record on religious freedom, women's rights, and human rights more broadly.

There is no defense for minimizing these evils. It would be reprehensible to shy away from accurately appraising and condemning the way North Korea and Iran are governed. But neither is there merit in prudishly refusing to engage these governments. Silence will raise tensions, increase the risk of war, and reinforce the isolation of ordinary citizens of these nations.

That accomplishes nothing to make North Korea and Iran more free, prosperous, or friendly to America. Diplomacy is a practical necessity for peace, and it can also help to liberalize and gradually bring normalcy to autocratic regimes.

If there is something to critique in the substance of Trump's comments, it is the emphasis on high-level talks between heads of state. These summits make for good photo-ops, but they are not where most achievable diplomatic deals are made.

More than presidents meeting with dictators, what we want is American diplomats meeting with diplomats from rival nations for working-level talks in pursuit of gradual and therefore realistic deals. Effective diplomacy will typically be slow and marked by setbacks. Concessions must be mutual and expectations modest.

The need to focus on attainable goals is particularly evident right now with North Korea, where a new round of nuclear negotiations may resume before the end of the year.

It is a good thing that Trump is willing to talk to Kim, but unhurried working-level diplomacy which is not artificially constrained by deadlines from Pyongyang or an uncompromising push for full denuclearization from Washington is more likely to be productive than the drama of another summit. That's what is "good for the United States," able to help our people and productive diplomacy helps North Korea's people, too.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, PoliticoUSA Today, the Los Angeles TimesThe Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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