Will it be ‘happy talk’ — or will Trump and Putin focus on arms control and other critical issues?

Jul 13 '18
President Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg last summer. (Reuters)

With the U.S.-Russia summit approaching, I reached out to former U.S. ambassador to Russia and current Stanford University political science professor Michael McFaul. McFaul, who recently published “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” a memoir of his time in Moscow, was kind enough to provide his thoughts on the upcoming meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents. What follows is a lightly edited version of our discussion. 

As a former national security adviser and ambassador, what can you tell us about how presidential summits fit into overall foreign policy/diplomatic strategy?

Historically, and most certainly in the Obama era, summits tended to be action-forcing events, creating deadlines for both governments to reach agreements or make progress on negotiations on issues of mutual interest. Both the Kremlin, but especially the White House, want “deliverables” (a word I learned working in the government!) for these summits: tangible outcomes that advance the interests of their respective countries. For instance, in President Obama’s first summit with President Medvedev, in July 2009, we signed several agreements in Moscow, including most importantly a framework agreement for the New START Treaty, which established the parameters for our negotiating teams. Obama and Medvedev then met the following year in Prague for a second summit, at which they signed the New START Treaty.

In July 2009, we also inked a “lethal transit agreement,” which allowed the United States to ship lethal weapons through Russian airspace to our soldiers in Afghanistan. We would not have finished the negotiations on that agreement if we didn’t have the pressure of an impending summit to get it done. By the time of our third summit with Medvedev, in June 2010 in Washington, we had a much longer list of deliverables. You can read about them here.

What do you think President Trump and the U.S. team hope to accomplish at the upcoming summit?

I hope that President Trump also will focus on deliverables — advancing concrete U.S. national interests. At the top of his list should be arms control again, since the New START Treaty will expire in 2021, and the United States and Russia have not addressed an extension to this treaty — or a follow-up treaty. The next round of arms control will be extremely complicated, so we need to start now.

President Trump also should seek President Vladimir Putin’s endorsement for his strategy to denuclearize North Korea. Strong words of support from Putin for that goal and Trump’s diplomacy would be an achievement.

I also hope that President Trump does not try to do too much. Tragically, I believe that the core element of U.S. policy toward Russia today should be containment. Just as we did during the Cold War, we should also seek to cooperate on issues where we can, but the bilateral agenda is very narrow right now. I hope President Trump understands the dangers of trying to expand it, which would only benefit Putin, not the United States.

I also would hope that Trump would discuss human rights with Putin, but I have no illusion that such a conversation will occur!

However, I fear that Trump is so eager to get along with Putin that he may be tempted to say things that are not in America’s national interest. Already, in the run-up to this summit, President Trump has hinted that he wants to pull out of Syria, study the idea of reducing our military footprint in Germany, invite Russia back into the G-7, and look into recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. Discussing any of these concessions would be a serious mistake. I also fear that Trump will lavish praise on Putin as an effective and strong leader as he did with Kim Jong Un at the Singapore summit. That also does not serve American national interests or even Trump’s reputation. Putin will perceive that kind of language as a sign of weakness.

What do you think President Putin and the Russian team hope will come out of this summit?

Putin wants a lovefest. To achieve victory, all Putin needs is for Trump to say nice things about him and signal that he wants to move on and forget about Russia’s past belligerent actions over the last three years. Putin wants a friendly press conference in which his annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine does not come up; his support for one of the most brutal dictators of our era, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, is not mentioned; or the Kremlin’s violation of American sovereignty during the 2016 presidential election gets only minor mention. Discussion about normalizing relations would be frosting on the cake. A Trump nod to lifting sanctions would be the cherry on top. (Even Putin cannot be thinking seriously that Trump would discuss recognition of Crimea as part of Russia.)

I want to be clear that I support the idea of face-to-face diplomacy even with our adversaries. We did so during the Cold War; we can do so now. But previous U.S. presidents went into these summits without praising Khrushchev or Brezhnev profusely, without checking our values at the door, and with a razor focus on achieving outcomes that benefited the American people. Trump needs to remember that it is not his personal relationship with Putin that matters; rather, it is what he can achieve in this summit to advance American national interests that should guide his actions. 

Drawing on what you’ve seen from Trump’s previous summits with Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, what advice would you offer Trump prior to his summit with Vladimir Putin?

First and foremost, prepare! Know cold what you are seeking to achieve in the meeting. Putin has been at this for 20 years — and has met with four U.S. presidents and has been working foreign affairs and international security issues his whole life. And Putin always comes prepared, seeking to advance what he believes are Russian national interests.

Second, dispense with the “happy talk.” You can do business with Putin without calling him your friend.

In your book, you described the current state of Russian-American relations as a “Hot Peace” as opposed to a Cold War. Do you think the summit has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of U.S.-Russia relations?

The mood music in U.S.-Russia relations could change for a while as a result of this summit, but our fundamental differences on many foreign policy issues will not disappear. Putin wants to weaken U.S. power in the world and undermine the liberal world order, including institutions like NATO and the European Union. Putin seeks to discredit the practice of democracy around the world but especially in the United States and Europe. Putin wants to peel away American allies in Europe — and signs of disunity at this week’s NATO summit only serve Putin’s interests.

At times, Trump says things that suggests he shares Putin’s vision of the world, especially regarding the liberal international order. But we are not an autocracy; even the president of the United States does not dictate U.S. foreign policy. So I think the basic issues that structure our competition with Russia today — including, by the way, our normative differences regarding democracy vs. autocracy — will remain in place for a long time, well after Trump is no longer president. The best we can do right now is to avoid further erosion and, above all else, avoid war.