The first face-to-face meeting of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump finally took place on 7 July 2017 at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Not since the days of superpower summits during the Cold War has a meeting been more eagerly anticipated, or so assiduously impeded by its opponents. In the context where normal practices of diplomacy have so far degenerated, and where ‘megaphone diplomacy’ (to use the term employed to describe relations at one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War in the early 1980s) has taken its place, a personal meeting was important for a whole number of reasons.
From Leadership to Greatness
First, one of Trump’s few consistent positions was that good relations made sense and would be beneficial for both countries, given that they face certain common challenges, including the struggle against radical Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere. While the syndrome that could be labelled ‘trumpery’ is made up of many elements, this was one of the more positive features of Trump’s programme. Astonishingly, this rather banal postulate encountered the ferocious opposition of what in a previous Valdai posting I called the ‘knaves’. This is an archaic term even in English, and it is intended to describe an archaic position that remains firmly rooted in the Cold War. A personal meeting would finally test whether Putin and Trump could establish a working relationship, and find a way to work on these common problems. Much advance commentary in the US warned Trump of Putin’s insidious charms, of his devilish ability to establish warm relations with world leaders, and thus even as the meeting had finally been arranged, attempts were made to poison the well of good relations.
Second, the key point was to normalise relations. In the context where Trump has met with most major leaders, including notably those of the UK, China, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and many more, the absence of a meeting between Putin and Trump began to look like a serious problem. Prior to the meeting there had been two extended telephone calls, and a meeting on 10 May in the White House between the president and Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the US secretary of Rex Tillerson. That meeting had also provoked an artificial scandal, when Trump quite legitimately passed on information (which by then had long been in the public domain), about the danger of militants using computers to smuggle bombs on board aircraft. Despite the attempts by the anti-Trump knaves to whip up a scandal, that meeting by all accounts had been very productive.
The third reason why a personal meeting was important was to provide US-Russian relations with a strategic direction. Even as the leaders prepared for the Hamburg encounter, Tillerson revealed Russia and the US were cooperating on the ground in Syria to create ‘de-escalation’ ceasefire zones. With so-called Islamic State on the verge of defeat, a power vacuum was opening up. The militant knaves in Washington were quite ready to continue the war against Assad. For them, half a million deaths and five million refugees from Syria was not enough, and Russia certainly could not be allowed to be part of the solution in Syria and the Middle East in general. A diplomatic triumph for Russia was viewed as a defeat for Washington – so much for the liberal international order’s vaunted win-win dynamic. For the knavish alliance of liberal internationalists and neo-conservative globalists, this would represent a fundamental challenge to US primacy and its universal ‘leadership’, and could never be allowed. It is clear that Trump has decided otherwise, and quite sensibly Russia and the US are begin to cooperate in Syria to put an end to the suffering of that tragic nation.
Fourth, at the ideational level it is clear that there is a fundamental difference between traditional ideas of American ‘leadership’ and Trump’s idea of American ‘greatness’. All post-Cold War American leaders from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have asserted a triumphal reading of American victory in the Cold War, accompanied by the assertion of American leadership in a unipolar world order. This of course has encountered the resistance of Russia, and increasingly also from Beijing (although China’s relationship to the end of the Cold War is rather different and is seen through a different prism). The liberal internationalists and neoconservatives since the 1990s have allied to assert America’s position as the ‘indispensable’ nation, an ideology of exceptionalism to which all other great powers have taken exception, especially since it means that by definition they became the subjects of various soft containment strategies to ensure that they do not challenge American supremacy.
Trump of course also defends American primacy, and he is certainly not ready to cede American military predominance to any other power. The shift in the definition of primacy from ‘leadership’ to ‘greatness’ nevertheless has enormous theoretical implications. It entails a whole new style of engagement in international affairs, some of them with benign implications, and some with rather more negative features. The ‘America first’ ideology means a retreat from multilateralism and less commitment to the advance of global public goods, such as the Paris environmental accords. It also means a more mercantilist approach to international political economy, especially since Trump’s cabinet is largely made up business people close to the Ayn Rand libertarian end of the political spectrum (except for a big dose of generals). However, on the plus side, in international affairs ‘greatness’ makes possible a less ideologised style in relations with other states. No longer is democracy promotion an instrument of US foreign policy, and this opens the door to a more pragmatic, rational and transactional mode of engagement with other states.
Trump and Putin Finally Meet
The Russiagate scandal has been generated to achieve certain goals. It is a way to explain the catastrophic failure of the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 election. But Russiagate had been brewing long before the election, and was designed to constrain Trump’s room for manoeuvre, and above all his scope for innovation in relations with Russia. By accusing him of collusion, any attempt to improve relations with Russia could be taken as proof that he was indeed in some ways complicit in alleged Russian attempts to shape the outcome of the American elections. Even though the argument was absurd, it was nevertheless politically highly effective. It led to the resignation of Michael Flynn as national security advisor after only 24 days in office, and the formation of a national security team with impeccable anti-Russian credentials – although of course of a rather more pragmatic sort than the virulent radicals who had surrounded Obama.
It also means that Trump has had to pay lip service, and possibly even to adapt his foreign policy, back to some of the traditional ‘leadership’ postulates of US foreign policy. This was in evidence in his speech in Warsaw on 6 July just before the Hamburg G20 gathering. Trump announced that Western civilisation was at the risk of decline, warning against ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ and ‘the creep of government bureaucracy’. He argued that ‘The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive’. Given the location, he issued one of the harshest condemnation of Moscow since taking office, calling on Russia to ‘cease its destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regime, including Syria and Iran’, and asserting that it must ‘instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defence of civilisation itself’. The high-blown rhetoric could not disguise the lack of substance, and there were no indications that Trump was going to align himself with the ‘freedom agenda’ of Bush junior and some of Obama’s team.
First Putin-Trump Meeting: The Exploration of a Compartmentalised Relationship
After very anticipated first Russian and US presidents' meeting, James Sherr, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) told valdaiclub.com that both sides used this opportunity to underline the importance of Moscow-Washington relationship and direct contacts between two presidents, in particular.
This is why at the meeting on 7 July Trump had demonstratively to raise the question of Russia’s alleged interference in the US election, although it is obvious that Trump’s heart was not in it. He is an intelligent man, and he is well aware that Russiagate is an entirely fictitious exercise designed precisely to undermine his presidency and to constrain his foreign policy options. The exchanges on this issue in Hamburg had a perfunctory and almost farcical quality, which only enraged the partisans of Russiagate even more.
The actual meeting lasted far longer than the anticipated half hour, at two hours and fifteen minutes. The two leaders clearly established a warm personal rapport, and discussed substantive issues including the global economy trade, climate change, Ukraine, Syria, North Korea and some other issues. Ultimately, the meeting was important for the fact that it took place, rather than any substantive agreements. The Trumpian shift from leadership to greatness did open up space for pragmatic agreements, but ultimately the US assertion of primacy remains in place, and would be exercised through military and other means. The US was not yet ready to work in a substantive engagement mode with other powers to resolve pressing questions, and its retreat from multilateralism would make even make common work on nuclear proliferation and climate change more difficult.
Nevertheless, some substantive issues were agreed. A bilateral channel was established to try to find a way forwards in the Ukraine conflict, a point reinforced at a breakfast meeting between Putin, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron the following day. The two leaders also set up a working group on cyber-security. Above all, although numerous contentious issues divide the two countries, the meeting clearly suggested that, unlike in the Obama years, they would not become personalised. Trump defended traditional American positions, and thus the new era suggested during the presidential campaign will not emerge any time soon. Nevertheless, the first step has been taken towards the normalisation of relations, and in the context of the warlike hysteria in Washington, this represents a major achievement.