Trump’s Diplomatic Reality Show Hits Summer Re-Run Season

Photo: AFP

This op-ed appears originally appeared on the SCMP website 7/5/19.


Last Sunday, US President Donald Trump crossed the guarded border in Panmunjom, a village in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. He smiled and shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as photographers rushed to capture the history-making moment. This was, after all, the first time a sitting US president had set foot in reclusive North Korea.

What could have been a breakthrough meeting between the last cold war rivals instead devolved into yet another photo op for the White House family album.

Meanwhile, Trump gains little from giving away personal meetings like candy from a cheap dispenser.

A one-hour-plus Trump-Kim meeting followed without any discernible outcome, other than that the negotiators will get back to negotiating. So we end up where we started, sold on an empty victory as the Donald Trump diplomatic reality show goes into its summer rerun phase.

Under an administration that is obsessed with camera-ready events rather than serious strategy, the country’s credibility around the world continues to decline.

Imagine if this effort had gone into concluding a comprehensive treaty with the North, eliminating the missile and nuclear threat and establishing a durable peace on the Korean peninsula. Then this meeting might have been worth something.

Instead, Trump love-bombed Kim. This flattery may be Trump’s attempt to get the reclusive leader out into the world and impress him with the riches that could be his if he would give up his nukes – except that Kim is not that naive. To believe that Kim would succumb to Trump’s charms and miraculously give up weapons he thinks ensures his country’s survival shows a remarkable lack of sophistication on Trump’s part.

While the White House preoccupies itself with staging publicity stunts, North Korea keeps winning, the longer Kim holds out for a deal. Stringing Washington along is cost-free and gives the young leader larger international exposure and some semblance of overseas influence. Also, perhaps more importantly, it buys him time to continue developing his nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, Trump gains little from giving away personal meetings like candy from a cheap dispenser.

The administration’s preference for optics over policy is not limited to North Korea. Meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Trump eased national-security restrictions on Chinese tech giant Huawei in exchange for a promise of increased Chinese imports of US goods. China was already buying large quantities of US agricultural products before he imposed tariffs – so yet again, we have an apparent development that just pushed the trade talks back to where they started.

However, Trump’s sudden back-pedalling on Huawei – like his flip-flop on ZTE, another Chinese smartphone maker that had been banned from buying US components after breaking US sanctions against Iran – only adds to other countries’ concern. With Trump, everything is a commodity to be traded.

On Iran, the White House has shown a propensity for haphazard thinking. After repeatedly warning Tehran that shooting down a US drone and attacking ships in the Strait of Hormuz would result in decisive action, Trump suddenly reversed course. He said he was concerned about the loss of life. But it wasn’t a convincing excuse because military commanders could have easily offered other targets or options for retaliation if that was the major issue.

Impulsive and consensus-bending actions are now being emulated among US allies. Japan and South Korea have, in the past, worked in concert on economic and security issues. At the G20 summit in Osaka, both countries adopted a declaration to “realise a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, to keep our markets open”.

Yet, within days, Japan imposed restrictions on hi-tech exports to South Korea. The sudden action appeared to be in retaliation for a top Korean court ruling on Japanese compensation for wartime forced labour, an issue which Japan says it settled under a 1965 treaty.

The world will be worse off if this rot continues. Back in the US, domestic politics is also replacing substance with style and made-for-television flash. According to a Pew survey in June, an overwhelming majority of Americans – 85 per cent – believe that political discourse in the US has become worse, and 55 per cent blame Trump. Huge numbers believe that political debate has become less respectful, fact-based, and substantive.

Leadership has always had an element of stagecraft – grand settings for formal talks, the glare of press corps lights, red carpets. “Politics is show business for ugly people,” as the saying goes. But leaders have to be judged by what they actually accomplish.

So far, global leaders have willingly participated in Washington’s publicity stunts, but as the ties that bind nation to nation slowly unravel, international cooperation will become more difficult. Not only is the world less safe as a result, the preference for symbolic gestures over concrete action also encourages a rise in personality politics.

Even Trump admits in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal: “You can’t con people, at least not for long … if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” The only question remaining is how much longer this con that has lasted 2½ years can keep going.


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How to Build a Successful Executive Intelligence Capability

In Part 1 we looked at why firms need executive intelligence and the challenges companies face in terms of capturing value from the onslaught of global data.

In Part 2 we look  at the foundations for building a successful executive intelligence capability. Here are three main components to consider.

1) Patterns in Digital Anthropology – Why do some online campaigns succeed and others fail? As the above graphic illustrating a complex social network shows, simply mapping connections provides little intelligence in and of itself.

Comparing your firm’s efforts to known patterns and discovering patterns as they emerge helps create an early warning system. Not all networks behave the same way. Not all influence comes from those with the most social media followers.

When evaluating the risks posed by online campaigns targeting a company or industry the strength and reputation of the groups involved, how a campaign spreads, its timing and whether a firm proactively engages with the issues all come into play.

2) Trend Identification – International firms need more innovative ways of understanding economic and political trends beyond typical surveys and government data, especially in emerging markets.

Ground truth and what ends up in the corporate memo chain are often drastically different. Is a local demonstration against industrial water use an issue? Local advisers say no, but media analysis and the strength of local activism suggests it is an immediate operational risk to any new investment.

Knowing what to look for, where and then being able to match current concerns against historical trends yield critical insights.

Similarly, new opportunities often arise from looking at information in a different way. New social trends and preferences often emerge online well before being discussed in formal media. Identifying trends as they emerge and predicting their strength and longevity become invaluable to the decision making process.

3) Synthesis and Reporting – Corporate objectives need to drive the use of intelligence. Understanding who in the organization needs it, the best ways to present that information and how often they need to be updated are critical to building a system people will actually use.

Some firms build out technology first and then try to re-jigger what they have to fit the often disparate business needs across the organization. The net result can often be unnecessary expense and ultimately loss of confidence in the project.

Incorporating broader corporate functions (strategy, operations, marketing and security) into an intelligence capability is critical to providing insights that executives can use rather than summaries of social media popularity that are common in out-of-the-box solutions.

Many social media reports (either automated via dashboards or lightly edited) work their way up the corporate chain disconnected from strategic business goals. If feedback sounds something like “and what can I use this for?” intelligence has missed the mark.

In part 3 we’ll take a look at specific examples of what executive intelligence can do for an organization.

Graphic credit: CreativeCommon Usage, Map of social network connections.

Why Firms Need Executive Intelligence (and not just social monitoring)

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAQ6AAAAJGVmOGVjNWEyLTM4MzQtNDEzYi1hOWUwLTIwYjNhOWFkMjZlZAThis is part one in a multi-part exploration of new developments in the field of executive intelligence.

Most large firms now monitor the web and social media for comments about their products. Graphs and charts detail the likes, shares, words, demographics and geography of an increasingly global customer base.

Many of these companies are not happy with the results.

While monitoring software generates a stream of summary statistics it paints an incomplete picture lacking the clarity and confidence you need to make strategic decisions. Social media monitoring alone leaves critical questions from the C-suite to marketing, operations and even security unanswered.

Both the why and how of events (online and in the physical world) that influence business strategy, threaten brands and reputations and alert to new competitive trends requires executive intelligence.

With a combination of targeted data science, human analysts and the right kind of data sources useful, independently derived insights can enhance the decision-making process.

It’s important to note that the world of online information, from local media and chat groups to highly influential bloggers can significantly affect operations. Typical monitoring programs often miss local attitudes toward plans for a new overseas factory, threats to supply chains, macro and geopolitical risks and even senior executive vulnerabilities.

Online activism has also increased in size, organization and effectiveness. Both Kraft and Subway changed ingredients in some of their food items based on successful online campaigns. Rather than taking the initiative and promoting healthier eating they were caught off-guard and “forced” to make costly changes while repairing their brand image.

How can a firm move from basic monitoring to intelligence?

Start with topics of interest and drill down to specific questions you know you need answered. For example:

  • Consumer Insight: What new Indian consumer preferences are gaining traction and why?
  • Strategy: What local risks threaten my Asia expansion plans?
  • CSR: Is the firm actually meeting targets or are there significant gaps in policy and practice exposed by online comments and critiques?

As your intelligence program matures many more insights will be uncovered that you didn’t even know you could use.

Up next: Part 2 looks at how to build a successful executive intelligence capability.

Brian P. Klein is a global executive with nearly two decades of international business, economic and diplomatic experience. He has designed and provided corporate intelligence advisory services for Fortune 50 and large privately-held firms. @brianpklein