Mary Dejevsky writes:
Once upon a time the announcement of a summit meeting between the leaders of two powerful and unpredictable states would have been greeted with relief, even hope. But for the second time this year, the response to such news – in much of the Western world at least – has been almost the opposite.
When the met – he of newly nuclear-capable North Korea – there was widespread concern that Donald Trump would be tricked into betraying vital US and Western interests. (He didn’t.) And the same warnings are being sounded now, before Trump embarks on his first formal summit with in Helsinki on 16 July – with as little justification.
Even with Russia, the US is in a position of enormous economic and military superiority. It can pick and choose its concessions. And anyway, since when have dangerous military stand-offs (Syria), unresolved regional conflicts (Ukraine), and wars of words (the furore in Washington over so far unproven claims that Russia helped Trump to his election victory) been regarded as preferable to a personal meeting that might defuse East-West tensions?
It need be nothing dramatic, no betrayal of the Western world, just the start of a process that could foster international security and save lives. Yet the opposition is ferocious – not just among Trump’s many foes in Washington, but from the UK and some other Europeans as well. Last weekend, there was reported to be “alarm” in Whitehall about the prospect of a US-Russia summit. “Fears” are now reported to be “growing” over a possible Trump-Putin “peace deal”.
How so? Surely only because talk of “peace” might quash the politically useful image of Russia as the perpetual enemy. With the World Cup showing a more human – and less threatening – face of today’s Russia, heaven forfend that Trump and Putin might between them banish that equally useful spectre (for some) of a “new Cold War”.
Some of the same considerations that fuelled opposition to the Trump-Kim summit are in play, too. They boil down to the notion that Donald Trump is too inexperienced or too naïve or too corrupt to be trusted with the defence of the West – and that Putin, as a veteran operator (and in Washington and London something of the devil incarnate) – could seize the advantage.
After all, did not Trump say, during his campaign that he wanted to improve relations with Russia? Did he not suggest that Putin was a man he could talk to, while conceding that his best efforts might not actually work? And has this intention – which made for one of the starkest differences between his election platform and Hillary Clinton’s – not been a big reason, perhaps the biggest reason, for Trump’s subsequent difficulties in Washington?
Well, yes. But none of that argues against a Trump-Putin summit. On the contrary, it should have happened much earlier.
That is, first, because – like it or not, and a great deal of the US political and media establishment does not – Trump won the presidency. Granted he did not win the popular vote, but he won fair and square under the US electoral system as it stands. And he won on a platform that included trying to thaw relations with Russia.
That has not stopped his opponents fighting tooth and nail to prevent him honouring that particular promise. The plethora of investigations into alleged Russian electoral interference and “collusion” is one way in which his freedom of action has been circumscribed. Congress has also passed measures – including new sanctions that only Congress can lift – which effectively curb the president’s leeway to deal with Russia still further.
In this climate, it is to Trump’s credit, and Putin’s, too, that they have remained essentially above the political fray. They have resisted personal attacks, delegating any harsh words to members of their entourage, and speaking from time to time on the phone. At two previous meetings on the fringe of multilateral gatherings, they have snatched some one-to-one time – to the barely disguised horror of their respective teams. Now, finally, Trump is honouring his election promise.
Second, it is because one-on-one meetings can be productive – for all leaders, but especially for a president such as Trump who sets so much store by personal rapport.
For all the warnings that nothing will come out of it, so why bother – often from the very same people warning that Trump could get lured into a lopsided agreement – what is important is that the two leaders are able to meet in the same place and get along. As with the Kim summit, the meeting is essentially “the message”. The point at this stage – as with the first Thatcher and Reagan meetings with Gorbachev – is to open, or widen, a channel of personal communication that, in itself, reduces a great many other risks.
Third, opponents of a summit insist that there is nothing to talk about. Or rather, nothing that would not entail concessions that no self-respecting US president should make. But there are at least two very specific topics for the agenda.
One is Syria and the Middle East in general. US and Russian forces have, by dint of behind-the-scenes military discussions, miraculously avoided direct clashes in (or over) Syria. That the US has now apparently abandoned “its” rebel forces around the latest conflict zone (Daraa) suggests a belated acknowledgement that President Bashar al-Assad has essentially won.
The US – and the UK – have until now resisted Russia’s attempts to convene international talks with a view to Western involvement in a settlement and in reconstruction. Given the “facts on the ground”, it is high time for the US to help rather than hinder a peace plan for Syria.
Then there is Ukraine. The murky involvement of Russia in eastern Ukraine, and the US decision to supply Javelin missiles to the Kiev government have created the potential for the conflict to escalate. There are signs, though, that Russia wants it to end, but is angling for something – in return. That something would be the loosening of sanctions, which have been more of a political than economic punishment.
But there is not the slightest chance that Russia will give up Crimea – either now or for the foreseeable future – and Crimea is why many of the sanctions were imposed. Still, however, there might be an agreement to be struck, with international guarantees for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and security, and the status of Crimea – like that of Kosovo – left in limbo.
So there is plenty for the two leaders to talk about, and there are the dim outlines of future deals that could, just, make the world a safer place. With Russia, as with North Korea, Trump is homing in on a single relationship, where a change in atmosphere could change much else.
The Kim summit has already shown the possibility for reduced tension across the region and accelerated economic development for North Korea. Something similar – on a much bigger scale – can be glimpsed if Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin decide to get along.