“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, Spanish philosopher, essayist, and novelist, offered this aphorism at the turn of the twentieth century, before the rise of Europe’s fascists.
How quickly we forget the warnings of our forebearers. And at what a potentially horrendous cost.
Consider the following; all will be clear in a moment.
The man came to public office late in life, a moderately successful businessman, won his fortune via a firm purchased with funds borrowed from home. He ascended to the state’s highest seat of power with, as one colleague opined, “a retail mind in a wholesale business.”
A similar observation was made of his approach to foreign affairs. Those practiced in the art of diplomacy despaired he treated conduct of foreign affairs in much the same manner one might take to handling trade disputes—in a prissy way, with a smug expression carved upon his face. As for role models, the man charged with running his foreign policy believed the boss had “a certain sympathy for dictators, whose efficiency appealed to him.”
Notoriously intolerant of mockery, disrespect or criticism, he looked to squash the press and often despaired dissenters with titles intended to rile public indignation or incite suspicion. Surrounding himself with a circle of subservient self-important personages, he took their compliance as a sign of his infallibility. As his private secretary observed, “He likes to be set on a pedestal and adored, with suitable humility, by unquestioning admirers.”
Dismissive of the diplomatic corps and its bureaucratic experts, he set about developing a plan for settling the preeminent crisis of his time. A personal meeting with an emerging tyrant. A man who’d grabbed the reins of power through political manipulation and a demonstrated, unhesitating employment of brute force. The tyrant was hardly a dashing figure, but he’d captured acclaim at home and was considered a competent leader from those evaluating him from abroad.
The two met at a location of the tyrant’s choosing. A long flight for our protagonist, a much shorter trip for the dictator. Despite the fact our protagonist considered his counterpart untrustworthy and half mad, he conceitedly concluded the tyrant would keep his word because the dictator had given it to him.
Returned home to great acclaim. He drew rant reviews from the press, accolades from those who should have known better, and declared he’d achieved “peace for our time.”
Here we step away from the history lesson—all above is well-documented. It just happens to have occurred eight decades ago.
The protagonist was Neville Chamberlain, the tyrant, Adolf Hitler. The subject at hand was the fate of the Sudetenland. Personages change, the stakes seemingly never do. In hindsight, it’s painfully evident Chamberlain’s personality, and disdain for the trappings of diplomacy were a poor match for his counterpart. What the British prime minister brought home as an embodiment of unprecedented progress Hitler dismissed as of “no significance whatsoever.”
Ah, the remembrances of history. We now stand at the precipice of yet another such moment. In this case, our protagonist is Donald Trump, and the wily tyrant who lacks a dashing figure, but is beloved at home, Kim Jung-un.
President Trump held the 12 June meeting with Kim absent a public plan, and with little apparent guidance from his State Department. How else does one explain the on-again, off-again, on-again scheduling of this significant event?
Like Chamberlain, President Trump has backed away from first principles. The Prime Minister surrendered the Sudetenland without means of verifying Hitler’s abandonment of further extraterritorial ambitions. Similarly, Mr. Trump has lost interest in demanding North Korea’s nuclear disarmament and has instead acceded to abiding with a prolonged freeze on Pyongyang’s existing nuclear capabilities—with a vague promise of denuclearization sometime in the unspecified future.
Gone, as well, is Trump’s demand the U.S. and other parties maintain “maximum pressure,” on Kim. Rather, the U.S. president seems intent on demonstrating his skill at the “Art of the Deal.” An opportunity to potentially clinch public acclaim and perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize by pressing Kim to sign an accord leading to a formal end of hostilities held at bay by an armistice for these last 65 years.
All this in the likely absence of Mr. Trump’s stridently hawkish National Security Advisor, Mr. Bolton. Like Chamberlain, the U.S. President probably sees little need for the backbenchers to interfere with his plans. As such, like Hitler, Kim will likely get what he so desires: international acclaim, a peace treaty, and a one-on-one with a man who is supposed to represent the most powerful nation on earth. All without sacrificing ambition, national pride or national pride.
Peace for our time, indeed.
Anderson is a retired member of the U.S. Intelligence Community whose work focused on Northeast Asia — specifically China and North Korea. He is also an author. His latest text is “Anubis,” the second book in a trilogy examining the rise of ISIS.