President Trump seemed to indicate that his relationship with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un may be different than it appears in the media, according to statements made to the Wall Street Journal this week.

Throughout months of President Donald Trump seeming to undermine the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when it comes to opening a dialogue with North Korea, many have questioned whether or not the two men were operating with the same intent. Each time Tillerson appeared to extend an olive branch to Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime, it would almost immediately be countered by a White House statement emphasizing America’s hard-line toward the Asian nation, leaving some to assume that one of two things must be going on within the Trump administration: either Trump and Tillerson are moving in separate directions and not in active communications with one another… or there’s a broader strategy in play.

“I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un,” President Trump told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. “I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised.”

When asked about President Trump’s fiery tweets directed at the North Korean leader, he seemed dismissive of his own aggressive rhetoric.
“You’ll see that a lot with me,” the President said of his tweets, “and then all of the sudden somebody’s my best friend. I could give you 20 examples. You could give me 30. I’m a very flexible person.”

Then when asked directly if he had already spoken to Kim, Trump replied, “I don’t want to comment on it. I’m not saying I have or haven’t. I just don’t want to comment.”

There is truth to what he had to say. Throughout his campaign, President Trump took an exceptionally hard stance toward China, particularly regarding trade deals between America and the industrial giant, even going so far as to use words like “rape” to characterize the international relationship. Once he met with Chinese President Xi, however, his tune changed dramatically – often tweeting about his cooperation with China, and even claiming those same “predatory” trade practices employed by China were America’s fault for allowing them to happen.

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“I don’t blame China,” Trump said in his remarks to business leaders during his Chinese visit. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”

One could tell a similar story about NATO. Leading up to his presidency, Trump drew fire for calling NATO nations out for failing to meet their financial commitments (despite President Obama doing the same only months prior). He also called the organization obsolete. Once in office, however, Trump’s stance on the alliance has softened as well.

Some have accused President Trump of flip-flopping for the sake of likability when his tone shifts so dramatically in the face of those he once criticized, but his remarks regarding Kim Jong Un may indicate that Trump’s method of dealing with foreign leaders relies in large part on leveraging public perception. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that President Trump has gained a reputation as a man that speaks his mind; which has even earned him a bit of a reputation for potentially being emotionally unstable.

Trump, who is keenly aware of how he’s perceived by the public at large, may actually be leveraging that reputation to apply pressure to foreign leaders, all while Rex Tillerson works in the background to develop a relationship with leaders that lets him leverage the big-bad Trump as the “stick” to Tillerson’s “carrot.”

“You should work with me to resolve this, you’ve seen President Trump’s temper at work in Syria already!” One could imagine Tillerson saying to foreign diplomats, referencing Trump’s decision to launch a volley of Tomahawk missiles at an air base controlled by Assad’s forces following a chemical weapons attack on civilians.

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that Trump is unaware of his perception within the international community, and if he is, it also seems likely that he and his administration would work to leverage how leaders see him in order to benefit American foreign policy. That doesn’t mean such a strategy will ultimately prove effective, but it would explain some of Trump’s backtracking once he feels as though a foreign government has agreed to play ball.

Only time will tell if President Trump is indeed trying to leverage his reputation in both positive and negative ways for the sake of foreign policy – or whether or not it will prove fruitful if he is.

 

Image courtesy of the Associated Press