by Robert E. Hunter
By the middle of next month, President Donald Trump will have defied both protocol and US elite opinion by meeting with leaders of two countries who, to put it mildly, do not wish the United States well.
In both cases, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump has faced intense criticism in the United States and in some other countries. He has been accused of being less interested in advancing the security interests of the United States than in showing that he is different, certainly from his predecessor. He has been criticized for making waves for the sake of it, keeping the spotlight upon himself, and distracting attention from his many domestic foibles. He has also been acting with a breathtaking insouciance and who cares who is offended.
In both cases, important US security interests are at stake. In Singapore, Kim Jong Un may have gained a certain legitimacy, an intangible quality that may or may not translate into something of real worth. But Trump did not come away empty-handed as is almost universally claimed. Prior to Singapore, Trump and the United States had one overriding security interest regarding the DPRK: dealing effectively with North Korea’s purported ability to launch nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles against the American homeland.
Changing the Relationship with Pyongyang
After the meeting, the facts of North Korea’s capabilities remain unchanged, but something important is different. At least for now, the perception of a nuclear threat from North Korea has diminished greatly. The sheer fact of the meeting—the way it was conducted, the words spoken, the visuals presented, the promises made even if not honored in the future—has leached a good deal of the poison out of the US-DPRK relationship, and, at least for now, altered the context of the conflict. The day after the Berlin Wall opened in 1989, the fall of European communism became virtually inevitable. The physical facts of the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals were the same as the day before, but the risks that there would be a crisis leading to war had suddenly diminished.
Something of a lesser but not inconsequential nature has happened in the US-DPRK relationship that has for now significantly reduced the principal US strategic problem posed by Pyongyang. South Korea has also benefitted, as its leaders have testified. Indeed, South Korean President Moon Jae-in set the ball rolling with his own overtures to Kim. Some others, notably Japan, are less confident, fearing that the US strategic commitment to Asian allies is less solid than it was under Trump’s predecessors. Trump took the United States out of a major economic/political linchpin, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and, on his own initiative, cancelled military exercises with South Korea. Yet in terms of America’s own strategic-political requirements, much was achieved at Singapore.
Something analogous is involved in Trump’s decision to meet Putin only a few days after the July 11-13 NATO summit in Brussels. The summit was already shaping up to be the most important moment in Trump’s relationship with Europe, already marked by angst on the part of most of America’s NATO allies. The NATO summit table has been set, the agenda worked out, the principal issues agreed upon, and even most of the language of the final NATO communique written. Defense and foreign ministers have met and reassured one another of mutual fealty. Yet, behind it all are intense worries about “what will Trump do?” This anxiety has been intensified by the announcement of the Trump-Putin meeting, given that so much of NATO’s current reason for being, pushed by the United States but agreed to by most NATO allies, is to confront and contain Russia.
This is not the atmosphere in which to hold a major meeting of allied leaders, especially at a time of confrontation with a country so widely seen as once again a major enemy. Russia has only a fraction of the Soviet Union’s military and economic power, but it is still bent on dividing the West and dominating the lands on the Russian periphery. It is also able to strike militarily westward and gain swift advantage. Hasn’t Putin already seized Crimea and parts of the rest of Ukraine? Intimidated the Baltic States and others? Developed and tested what is called “hybrid” warfare, including the tools of cyber warfare? And, in the bargain, interfered both directly and indirectly in elections in the United States, possibly in Britain (the 2016 Brexit referendum), and parts of continental Europe?
Moreover, the president of the United States has decided to meet with the president of this confrontational country without adequate preparation or any clear sense communicated to others that he knows what he is doing, without the prior blessing of allied states that still depend on the United States for security in Europe and that also need the US president to stand up for collective Western interests. Of course, Trump will only meet Putin after the NATO summit, where allied leaders can express their fears, urge caution, lay their own concerns on the table, and try counseling him on how to approach Putin and, at least as important, what not to do and say.
And yet, despite all these drawbacks, Trump should nevertheless go to Helsinki and meet with Vladimir Putin.
A Russian Restart?
What Trump is doing in meeting Putin is part and parcel of what he as been (mostly) saying since he became president: that the United States needs to try finding a basis for dealing with the Russian Federation. As difficult as it is for some Americans, including prominent American commentators, to acknowledge this fact, Russia is no longer the supine country that emerged as the largest fragment of the old Soviet Union, a “Costa Rica with nuclear weapons.” It is inevitably reasserting itself as a putative though not in fact yet an actual great power on the world stage. The way Trump has been recognizing that fact may not observe all the diplomatic and political niceties. But his acknowledgement of the Phoenix-like rise of Russian power and position is more apt than are those who believe that the United States can and should indefinitely enjoy its virtually unchallenged position of world’s sole superpower.
Maybe Trump is acting from some unspoken but profound sense of strategy and understanding of the realities of the world, facts of power, and the requirements of US-Russian relations for the future. But even if he is just acting from a congeries of less-worthy motives, notably self-gratification, what he is doing had to be done by someone, sometime—not to flatter Putin and advance Russian goals, but to advance America’s interests and those of so many other countries that still depend upon the US for security. In fact, by publicly acknowledging the inevitable evolution of Russia’s future, Trump may be able to nudge it in directions consonant with US and Western interests more than has been achieved by following the course developed by a large part of the US commentariat, which has concluded that a new cold war has already begun. If, beginning with this summit, Trump can find a valid basis for avoiding a new cold war, consistent with America’s security interests, this would also spare the world all the risks and costs involved.
What Trump has sought to do with Russia is consistent with the propositions put forward soon after the end of the Cold War by President George H.W. Bush, when he proclaimed the grand strategy of seeking to foster a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. That meant security for everyone, not just the victors in the Cold War. It was an effort to keep from repeating the tragic error of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, when Germany was forced to take all responsibility for the war. That act became grist to the mill of German nationalists, including Adolf Hitler, and was one factor leading to World War II.
Bush and, in his footsteps, Bill Clinton, forged a superstructure for European security that kept the US engaged as a European power, completed Germany’s reintegration into the international community, took Central Europe off the geopolitical chessboard, and found a viable place for Ukraine (which could not be under the wing of either the West or Russia without provoking concerns about one another’s ambitions in Europe). Perhaps most significantly, both U.S presidents promoted a full and honored place for the Russian Federation in European security arrangements, if it were prepared to play such a role. What Bush and then Clinton tried to do might have been a fool’s errand. Perhaps, as has been alleged, aggression is part of Russia’s DNA. But there was never a fair test. During the 1990s, several efforts moved in the right direction, including Russia’s membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace, its effective role in the post-Dayton Agreement Implementation Force in Bosnia (with its forces put under US command), its tacit acceptance of membership in NATO of Poland and the Czech Republic (thus surrounding Germany with the US-led Western Alliance), and its agreeing to the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which included 19 areas of practical cooperation.
These hopeful developments later faltered, in major part because of what Putin did in Georgia and Ukraine, in the process violating both the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing Ukraine’s security. But successors to Bush-Clinton also changed direction and began taking advantage of Russia. These reversals included the abrogation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, the deployment of missile defenses in Central Europe against North Korea and Iran, and then in 2008, the NATO declaration that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” This last pledge was a nonsense commitment—no ally would honor it—but it fed Putin’s developing narrative that the US and the West were seeking to surround Russia.
In the United States, pursuing the strategic interest both in creating a dialogue with Russia to seek areas of common interest and avoid confrontation has been vastly complicated by the role that Russia played in the 2016 US presidential election. Whether that interference was pivotal or not, it is clearly unacceptable (even though the United States has interfered in the politics and elections of a host of other countries). Trump must tell Putin that nothing else in US-Russian relations can be possible if there is any repetition, in either the United States or other Western countries.
In Helsinki, Trump will have to put forward US concerns regarding election interreference, Russian behavior in Ukraine (where US hands were also not entirely clean), and Russia’s role in Syria, which was made possible primarily by serious Obama administration miscues. But the two leaders must focus on beginning regular communication, identifying inherent interests, and laying the foundations—if Putin will agree—for moving beyond the current stasis and, above all, for preventing the current confrontation from escalating into a new Cold War. Ironically, perhaps, as the weaker power, Putin has more to lose by initiating such a process, other than in the eyes of those who see political and diplomatic legitimation for Putin as more important than achieving concrete U.S strategic ends.
President Trump faces several requirements prior to the Putin meeting. He must regulate his behavior at the NATO summit (and in his subsequent meetings in Britain). He must make clear, without hesitation, US commitment to all the NATO lore. He must not abuse any of the allied leaders, as he has done recently to the Canadian prime minister and the German federal chancellor. And he must show himself open to counsel by the allies, many of whom have even more at stake in the Trump-Putin meeting than the U.S. does.
Trump also needs to keep the allies (not just in Europe) fully apprised of what happens in Helsinki and begin showing a capacity to take seriously the demands placed on him to advance not just US security but that of nations far beyond its shores. Maybe this is faint hope. But after breaking crockery in Singapore and in Helsinki and showing that he can be different from his predecessors, maybe Trump will understand how much he has personally to gain by trading his reputation for unreliability for a new persona as a true leader. The future of America and a lot of other countries, institutions, and efforts depends vitally on such a pivot.