Summits fuel questions about Trump's embrace of autocrats

Donald Trump's warm embrace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un after a spectacular bust-up with G7 allies is the latest example of what critics say is a worrying penchant for autocrats.

The backslapping, smiles and handshakes in Singapore on Tuesday stood in conspicuous contrast to the furrowed brows and piercing looks of a summit just days before in Canada.

Whereas Trump looked tired and annoyed in Quebec, where he was surrounded by leaders of democracies, he could barely have been more relaxed around the lunch table with Kim -- a man who overseas industrial scale human rights abuses and is suspected of ordering the assassination of his own brother last year.

"Getting a good picture everybody?" he joked with photographers before sitting down to ice cream with Kim, "so we look nice and handsome and thin."

At a post-summit press conference, Trump praised Kim as "very smart" and a "very good negotiator," in the same breath as warning critical statements by Canada's prime minister would cost the country "a lot of money."

Trump's embrace of strongmen and autocrats has long been a point of contention at home.

He has repeatedly praised Russian leader Vladimir Putin and has voiced admiration for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose drug policies have resulted in thousands of deaths.

But the juxtaposition of Trump's treatment of Kim and his distain for G7 friends has pushed criticism to new levels.

"The president disrespects our closest allies and gives a pass to dictators," said Democratic congresswoman Nanette Barragan. "I never thought I would see the day."

For Trump's fiercest critics, it is just more evidence of a dangerous predilection for authoritarian figures.

"How long will you remain silent as President Trump lays ruin to our alliances and tears apart the very fabric of our democracy?" Democrat Adam Schiff asked his Republican colleagues.

"Patriots do not stand mute when our country is in jeopardy, no matter what party occupies the White House."

Trump's joint stroll and bonhomie with Kim was too much even for some of the party faithful.

"If Obama had had the last 24 hours that Trump has had, the GOP would be demanding his impeachment," said prominent Republican commentator Erick Erickson.

The White House has balked at the notion that Trump is more comfortable around strongmen than fellow democrats.

When a CNN reporter put the point to Trump in Canada, Trump denounced him as "fake news" and his national security advisor John Bolton laughed derisively.

But some observers say there are more personal, less ideological, reasons for Trump's behaviour -- he likes people who praise him.

The Putins, Kims and Dutertes of the world have been more than willing to lavish praise when needed.

Putin has variously called Trump "brave" for meeting Kim and heralded his business acumen.

"Donald isn't just president of the United States, he's also a good and strong entrepreneur," Putin said recently.

In contrast, fellow G7 leaders -- many of whom have electorates that distrust the businessman-turned-president -- are not given to massaging his ego.

"The G7 made clear that for Trump it's all about whether people respect him and see him as successful," said Kelly Magsamen a former top Pentagon Asia specialist.

"He also appears to be easily manipulated by dictators who have figured this out."

US presidents and era-defining summits
Singapore (AFP) June 12, 2018 - Donald Trump hailed his meeting with Kim Jong Un as the start of a process that would rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.

While experts on North Korea were largely underwhelmed immediately after the summit, most agreed that the very fact of their having met was potentially significant and could play out over the coming years.

Previous American presidents have also reached out to long-term foes, holding what turned out to be legacy-defining meetings.

Here are two of the most significant summits:

- Reagan and Gorbachev, 1986 -

Following a decades-long Cold War arms race that saw the United States and the Soviet Union amass tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, the two superpowers decided to sit down in October 1986 and discuss a radical proposal: the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Iceland's capital in a bid to reach an agreement. The Reykjavik summit lasted two days but the talks collapsed. Washington refused to roll back development of its "Star Wars" missile defence project, which was unacceptable to the Kremlin.

In the years to come, however, the summit came to be seen as the harbinger of significant de-escalation. It led to a treaty the next year under which both Cold War powers would eliminate their short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Thousands of these weapons were scrapped in what was the first major weapons reduction by the rivals.

Despite the failure to reach an agreement, Reykjavik is seen by many as a turning point in the Cold War. Gorbachev continued to push through with internal reforms he had started since coming to power, and the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in 1991.

- Nixon and China, 1972 -

The United States broke off ties with China when the communists, led by Mao Zedong, took over the country in 1949. The relationship remained in limbo for almost two decades, during which their forces squared off in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

Then Richard Nixon won the 1968 US presidential election and decided to reach out to Beijing.

It started with secret contacts to lay the groundwork for formal contact, including a covert trip by Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger in 1971.

A year later -- in February 1972 -- Nixon flew to China in what is widely considered one of the most important geopolitical events of the 20th century. The US leader met with the top Chinese leadership, including Mao and premier Zhou Enlai.

It kicked off formal contacts that led to full diplomatic ties in December 1978, and Washington withdrawing recognition from Taiwan. Nixon's gamble is also seen by many as catalysing the end of communist China's isolation and opening up to the rest of the world.


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