Can Adversaries Become Friends?

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By Nicholas Wheeler, Professor of International Relations
Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham


‘The past does not have to define the future. Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war. As history has proved over and over, adversaries can become friends’. US President Donald Trump spoke these words after his historic summit last month in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. He claimed that he and Kim had developed ‘a very special bond’ as a result of the few hours they met together, including time spent alone with only their translators present. Trump boldly declared that the North Korean nuclear threat – a country that he had threatened to rain ‘fire and fury’ on only a few months earlier – was now over. But can personal relationships between leaders really transform enemies into friends?

Trump and Kim are an unlikely friendship given that they lead radically different political systems, yet Trump has been full of praise for the young dictator. It’s less clear what Kim thinks of Trump. The friendship, if that is what it is, has not yielded a major breakthrough in rolling back North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles that can hit the United States. One reading of the North Korean position is that the development of trust has to precede the concrete steps of North Korea’s denuclearization. But for the United States, this trust can only develop once North Korea takes concrete and verifiable steps towards nuclear disarmament. How far Trump’s personal relationship with Kim can bridge the gap between these very different perspectives on the relationship between trust and denuclearization remains to be seen.

The best case we have of two enemies becoming friends is the reconciliation between France and Germany after the Second World War, where personal relationships played an important part. The best definition of friendship in international politics is provided by the International Relations theorist Karl Deutsch and his co-researchers who coined the term ‘security community’ to describe interstate relations where the threat or use of force has become unthinkable as an instrument of statecraft. Writing in the late 1950s, Deutsch and his colleagues cautioned that France and Germany did not yet form a security community, though they recognized the beginnings of this in the increasing economic, political, and societal levels of interdependence between the two states.

What cemented the growing Franco-German friendship was the personal bond that developed between the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his French counterpart Charles de Gaulle who had been elected as French President in 1958. The highpoint of de Gaulle’s and Adenauer’s process of personal bonding occurred in July 1962. In a stunning act of symbolic reconciliation, Adenauer and de Gaulle, both Catholics, knelt and prayed together as they shared mass in Reims cathedral.

Personal friendships can develop between the most unlikely of leaders, with often surprising and spectacular consequences. Who would have predicted that President Ronald Reagan who called the Soviet Union the ‘evil empire’ in 1983 would forge a close personal bond with his Soviet equivalent Mikhail Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s? Their personal chemistry contributed to the end of the Cold War and the reduction of the nuclear threat, however it did not prove possible for their successors to build on the foundations they had laid and develop a new relationship of US-Russia friendship.

Instead, it is increasingly the opposite, with the relationship deteriorating as both sides charge the other with pursuing unilateral advantage: for Russia, it is perceived US meddling in Georgia and Ukraine, NATO’s expansion eastwards during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, and US unilateral uses of force from Kosovo to Iraq that have set back the possibilities for a new partnership. From the US perspective, Russia’s use of force against Georgia, its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria, and its alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee in the 2016 US presidential election, lead Russia to be viewed increasingly as an enemy rather than a friend.

The paradox is that Trump has claimed that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is ‘not my enemy, and hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend’. By contrast to Trump’s warm embrace of Putin at their recent summit in Helsinki, Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN has said: ‘We don’t trust Russia. We don’t trust Putin. We never will. They’re never going to be our friend. That’s just a fact’.

Trump has said that previous US leaders lacked the personal chemistry with Russian leaders to be able to make substantive progress in their relationships. There is an important insight lurking here, which is that chemistry can be substance, as with Adenauer and de Gaulle and Reagan and Gorbachev. It remains to be seen whether the chemistry is real or faked in Trump’s relationships with Putin and Kim, and if it is real, whether it can lead to new relations of friendship.


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