Agreement on the Helsinki meeting is a positive development if for no other reason that it is deeply dangerous for our two nations, given their military capabilities, to refuse to talk to one another at the highest level. We have seen a series of past “resets” in the relationship that invariably yield to mutual frustration. Expectations should be set low for this one, in light of that record. But this is not to say that nothing can be accomplished.
Diplomacy can work in mysterious ways, as the visit by John Bolton to Moscow and the subsequent announcement of a Trump-Putin summit go to show.
Bolton, appointed national security adviser in early April, is the third person to hold that office under Donald Trump. On most policy matters over the years, he has a well-earned reputation for hawkishness. His stint in the West Wing has coincided with a number of hardline initiatives by the administration—think only of trade wars with China and US allies, repudiation of the Iran accord, and opening the Jerusalem embassy. Although these moves obviously owe much more to President Trump’s predilections than to any influence on the part of Bolton, the correlation is striking.
No less striking is that administration behavior has diverged from Bolton’s priors in several key areas. One is North Korea, where the staging of the Singapore summit, and the meager results, ran directly counter to his comments as a private citizen. The other, of course, is the relationship with the Russian Federation. At his Moscow press conference on June 27, Bolton was asked by an American journalist how he could justify an extended personal meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, whom he has accused of masterminding Russian interference in US elections and lying about it in public. Bolton thanked his questioner for his “research into my prior writings,” and then said straightforwardly that he was dispatched to Russia to facilitate an encounter his boss wanted to happen: “Right now, I’m an adviser to President Trump, and it is his agenda we are pursuing.”
Putin-Trump Summit: Normalizing Contacts Under Time Pressure
John Bolton’s visit is an important and welcome development, because the situation, when the leaders and the ruling circles of the two nuclear superpowers, which play a key role in world security, practically do not communicate with each other, is absolutely unhealthy. This did not happen even during the Cold war, when, despite all the disagreements, acute conflicts, crises and mutual rejection, the communication channels, open, semi-classified, and classified ones, created for mutual understanding and crisis management, always worked.
The intent to improve the relationship with Russia happens to be one of the most frequently stated and, to all appearances, most intensely held policy preferences of the forty-fifth president of the United States. It is also the commitment he has had the most difficulty doing anything practical about. This is partly reflective of the hard realities that separate the countries on Crimea, the Donbass, sanctions, Syria, etcetera. But it is no less symptomatic of domestic resistance to engagement with Russia—in the national security establishment, in Congress, in the mass media, and in public opinion. And there is no denying that this resistance is fueled by resentment of what is widely held to be unacceptable Russian meddling in the very presidential election in 2016 that carried Trump into the White House.
Agreement on the Helsinki meeting is a positive development if for no other reason that it is deeply dangerous for our two nations, given their military capabilities, to refuse to talk to one another at the highest level. We have seen a series of past “resets” in the relationship that invariably yield to mutual frustration. Expectations should be set low for this one, in light of that record. But this is not to say that nothing can be accomplished. Some choices need to be made first. President Trump needs to prioritize one or two areas of disagreement and try for substantive progress there. President Putin needs to decide if he will continue to stonewall on the deeply divisive electoral-interference question. The idea of beginning a dialogue on that question, perhaps embedded in a larger conversation about rules of the road in the cyber age, is one the presidents and their aides should entertain seriously in the short slice of time before the handshake in Finland.