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The Singapore Summit, Legitimacy, and International Status

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Dan Scavino Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I have a new piece, co-authored with Stacie Goddard, at Foreign Policy on the debate about “legitimating” North Korea. It’s really less of an opinion article and more of an “academics do some explainer journalism” piece.

The idea of legitimacy is often weaponized in domestic discourse. When diplomacy involves enemies and rivals — especially those representing states governed by different ideologies and political systems — it is both cheap and easy for opposition parties to accuse leaders of granting their enemies undeserved legitimacy. Given the United States’ self-image as a beacon of freedom and democratic values, these criticisms tap into a deep vein of nationalist sentiment.

Such accusations are also extremely difficult to disprove because legitimacy is difficult to measure and hard to connect to specific outcomes. North Korean propaganda has touted the Singapore summit as evidence of Kim Jong Un’s masterful leadership. But this will hardly make the difference between regime stability and popular revolution. Realists, as well as some left-wing defenders of the summit, might even argue that obsessing about “legitimating” hostile regimes through high-level meetings and summits reflects American hubris, if not outright narcissism: The notion that U.S. officials are so very important that their attentions and symbolic gestures of recognition can make or break foreign governments.

There’s truth to all of this, but it goes too far.

We conclude that:

At the same time, if North Korea is going to capitalize on its newfound status, it’s up to the Kim regime to turn the handshake into something far more significant. Real status — the type that gives states significant benefits — requires more than a summit; it means ongoing and committed participation in the society of states.

China’s emergence as a great power might have started with Nixon’s visit and continued with U.S. recognition and engagement in 1979, but it took close to two decades and China’s own acceptance of and participation in international institutions to secure great-power status. Likewise, India’s increasing legitimacy as a nuclear power cannot be reduced to the United States’ tacit recognition of its weapons program under the George W. Bush administration; it is India’s persistent efforts to “play by the rules” that has changed its status, and allowed it to reap the benefits of the international nuclear regime. Critics are right that Trump’s handshake has given Kim an invitation into the club of legitimate states. But it’s not clear yet where that invitation will lead.

Anyway, I’m curious what you all think. We tackle comparisons with Obama and Castro, run through the reasons why conferrals of status matter in world politics, and provide some additional theoretical and historical context to relevant debates.

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