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The age of Trumputin

Since the Cold War, American and Russian leaders have been drawn into one-on-one meetings – occasionally leading to diplomatic breakthrough. The Trump and Putin summit is far more unpredictable.

Like it or not – and much of the world doesn’t – Donald Trump is now getting into his stride. At home, he has the chance to appoint his second Supreme Court justice in two years, and with that to change the ethos of the court for a generation. Abroad, he’s made headlines with a flurry of summits that have deeply alarmed America’s allies. After Trump-Xi and Trump-Kim (perhaps the most implausible of global meetings) comes the encounter that has been most eagerly awaited – Trumputin. America and Russia will face one another again – as in the heyday of the Cold War – but with a US president whose policies cannot be predicted and who is rumoured to somehow be in the Kremlin’s pocket.

Trump has met Vladimir Putin three times – twice on the edges of the G20 in Hamburg a year ago and again, briefly, at the APEC Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam last November. But Helsinki on 16 July will be the first formal meeting between the two leaders. And in the wake of Trump’s histrionics after the G7 meeting in Canada combined with his remarkable display in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, there is real concern among America’s west European allies about what Trump’s meeting with Putin might portend.

Can we glean hints from past American-Russian summits? Why is this meeting being held in Helsinki? And are we set merely for more diplomatic theatre or – as some fear – is the international order on the verge of a tectonic shift?

During the Cold War the US state department liked to reserve the term “summit” for carefully prepared meetings at which agreements crafted by bureaucrats would be signed with due fanfare. They only happened as the culmination of a process of long diplomatic engagement. The rationale against an unscripted tête-à-tête was explained by the American policy intellectual Dean Rusk in an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine in April 1960, seven months before the presidential election: “Picture two men sitting down together to talk about matters affecting the very survival of the systems they represent, each in a position to unleash unbelievably destructive power… Is it wise to gamble so heavily? Are not these two men who should be kept apart until others have found a sure meeting ground of accommodation between them?”

A year later, however, Rusk was John F Kennedy’s secretary of state and his new boss took a fundamentally different view of meetings at the summit. Kennedy, like many leaders, believed that it was only the men at the top who could cut through the tangle of red tape below – forcing narrow-minded bureaucrats to think big and break new ground. To Rusk’s embarrassment, in April 1961, he was charged by Kennedy with the task of arranging a face-to-face encounter with his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev on the back of the president’s planned visit to western Europe in June. The summit had to be set up in only a couple of months.

The Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna on 3-4 June 1961 illustrates some of the dangers Rusk feared. There was no proper agenda: Kennedy’s aim was simply to take the measure of the veteran Soviet leader, but he got drawn into a shouting match about their rival ideologies and about disputed global hotspots. The atmosphere became particularly acrimonious when they dispensed with their advisers and debated alone, except for interpreters. Temperamentally, both men hated to lose, so they kept at each other. Kennedy said afterwards that the encounter was the “roughest thing in my life”. Khrushchev decided that the green young US president was not up to the job; the summit emboldened him to place nuclear missiles in Cuba a year later.

It’s unlikely that Helsinki 2018 will degenerate into a shouting match, but Vienna 1961 is a reminder of why professional diplomats and arms control experts dread letting leaders loose on their own. The consequences are often impossible to predict.

 Close encounters of the diplomatic kind: the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the US president John F Kennedy after a tense meeting in Vienna, 1961. Credit: Bettmann

Sometimes, however, the outcome has proved positive. Consider the case of Reykjavik in October 1986 – another meeting improvised at short notice. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had broken the ice in Geneva a year before, in an encounter that was sometimes stormy but nevertheless generated real chemistry between them. Now Gorbachev, concerned that the momentum had been lost, wanted another quick meeting to re-energise arms control negotiations.

George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, deliberately didn’t call it a summit and none of the Americans expected the diplomatic peace offensive that Gorbachev unleashed, calling for a 50 per cent cut in both sides’ nuclear arsenals. Even more unexpected was what followed, as two leaders who both detested nuclear weapons kept upping the ante. In the end, Reykjavik was deemed a failure because there was no agreement over Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative – or Star Wars programme. But it opened the way for a treaty to be signed the following year in Washington abolishing all their intermediate-range nuclear forces.

That breakthrough was not just because two men clicked at the summit. Their convergence was cemented by the two foreign ministers – Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze – and their advisers, through hard graft and constant communication. Effective summitry depends on teamwork, strategy and persistence at all levels, to channel the emotions released by the leaders, but these are not virtues normally associated with the Trump White House.

Helsinki might yet result in a “grand bargain” but don’t hold your breath. Putin is essentially predictable, but has a different set of values from Gorbachev; whereas Trump is neither predictable nor interested in values.

Cold War summitry often occurred in neutral capitals, such as Vienna and Reykjavik. Helsinki became prominent in August 1975 as the venue for signing the final act of the long-running Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which codified key principles such as the inviolability of borders, the right to self-determination and the sanctity of human rights. Brainchild of Urho Kekkonen, the Finnish president, the Helsinki Accords were a cornerstone of international détente in the 1970s and made a lasting impact on the security architecture of Europe. On the margins of that grand summit, President Gerald Ford held an amicable meeting with his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev.

In September 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev and George HW Bush also met in Helsinki, at only a week’s notice. These two superpower leaders were much closer, both personally – by now on first-name terms – and on policy at a time when the Soviet bloc had disintegrated: Gorbachev was talking of a “common European home”, Bush of a “new world order”. The immediate issue was to forge a united front against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait the previous month, Iraq hitherto having been a Soviet client. Gorbachev and Bush agreed in Helsinki that they would go to the United Nations in a joint effort to confront Saddam’s aggression – an unprecedented affirmation of shared principles after decades when each state used the UN for its own ends.

In March 1997, their successors – Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin – also met in Helsinki. Neither was on top form – the Russian was recovering from heart surgery and his US counterpart was in a wheelchair after a tendon operation – but the atmosphere was one of co-operation. While reiterating his dislike for Nato expansion eastward, Yeltsin agreed to sign a pact with the alliance that would give Russia a voice in Nato, though not a veto over its military actions. The two leaders also agreed to begin negotiations for a treaty on further reducing strategic arms (Start III) and on bringing an increasingly free-market Russia into international economic institutions, especially the G7. The following year Yeltsin attended his first G8 meeting, hosted by Tony Blair in Birmingham.

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Finland shares an 800-mile border with Russia; St Petersburg is a three-hour train ride away to the east; and the ferry trip south across the Baltic sea to Estonia’s capital Tallinn only takes 100 minutes. In the period 1945-91 Finland was a country “in-between” – deliberately not a member of Nato, the European Community or the Warsaw Pact. Rejecting bloc politics, it sought to act as a bridge across the Cold War divide and played a major role in de-escalating tensions. Yet, some in the West were suspicious of Finland’s neutrality because of its 1944 “friendship treaty” with Moscow. Right-wing critics in the West complained of Finland kowtowing to the Russian bear, and “Finlandisation” became a dirty word.

In fact, however, the Cold War past is not a sure guide to Finland today. The Finns belonged to the Swedish empire for six centuries; they were only part of Tsarist Russia for a century – as a Grand Duchy from 1809 to 1917 – after which the country won its independence in the wake of Bolshevik revolution. The oft-derided friendship treaty was Stalin’s consolation prize for failing to suppress Finland in two bloody wars between 1939 and 1944. The Finns regarded it as the necessary price for keeping their independence, unlike all the other western neighbours of the USSR. Behind Finland’s public restraint, its Soviet policy was more assertive in private, involving intense and frank dialogue with the Kremlin leadership.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Finns were able to act more freely, openly turning towards the West. The friendship treaty was now null and void, and Finland entered the European Union in 1995 and the eurozone in 1999. Militarily, however, it has kept its independence – and has not joined Nato. Finland is part of the institutional West, but Helsinki still sees itself as occupying a special position. Not so much a neutral bridge, more a looking glass through which the West can gaze closely into Russia and – if it wishes – gain greater insight.

So, Finland has credibility with both sides. This matters when relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Russia is obsessed with the Baltic states’ membership of the Atlantic alliance. Trump is openly critical of the EU (set up, he said, to drain America’s “piggy bank”) and Nato (“as bad as Nafta”). Europeans, for their part, worry about Putin’s challenge to the European security order and Trump’s lack of commitment to it.

The summit in Finland puts the spotlight on Sauli Niinistö, president since 2012 and recently re-elected. He has kept pushing for dialogue between US and Russian leaders as tensions have escalated, especially since the Crimea/Ukraine crisis of 2014. While Niinistö has cultivated relations with Putin in particular, meeting him regularly despite the growing East-West chill, he has also diligently enforced European sanctions and made a point of deepening ties with Washington, meeting Trump in August 2017 and reinforcing trilateral defence co-operation with America and Sweden. At the same time – adroitly and discreetly – he facilitated unofficial talks between the two Koreas and the US on Finnish soil in March 2018, which opened the way towards the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

Putin and Trump have each asked for a bilateral meeting with the Finnish president. These will be more than courtesy calls. Niinistö has made clear that he intends to raise the subject of Baltic Sea tensions and the future of the Arctic – issues that matter to Finland and the EU both politically and environmentally. Niinistö is primarily the stage manager for Trumputin – but as he has said, “Even small steps in reducing tensions would be in everybody’s interest.” And as a new, hands-on father once again – happily remarried after his first wife was killed in a car crash – he thinks in a different way about the future than the two macho men who will be his guests.

Will Helsinki just be a photo opportunity? Is there any hope of “small steps”? Perhaps the most telling comment came from Trump’s latest national security adviser, John Bolton, when announcing the summit on 27 June. A year before, Bolton had taken the Dean Rusk line about shunning summitry, warning that you meet Putin “at your own peril”. Now, parroting his master’s voice, he declared that “the mere fact of the meeting already is a success”.

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But “success” for whom? By just agreeing to meet, Trump has given Putin something he wants – at no cost. There hasn’t been a formal Russian-American summit since June 2013. In other words, after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, the imposition of Western sanctions and Russia’s exclusion from the G8, Barack Obama put Moscow in a deep freeze. He even dismissed Russia as a mere “regional power” – the kind of snub that Russians deeply resent. That Trump, unlike Obama, is willing to hold such a summit is therefore a huge plus for Putin, a chance to “restore full-fledged relations based on equality and mutual respect”, as he said during Bolton’s visit to Moscow. Russia’s aims were nicely expressed by Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN: “We need each other, not because we want to love each other. We don’t want and we don’t need to be loved. We simply need to hold normal, pragmatic relations with a major country upon which… a lot in the world depends.”

For Trump, what matters about summitry is not so much national interest as personal psychodrama. He really wants to engage with Putin one-on-one. Not only does this give him the limelight he so craves, he also believes it allows him to get the measure of his opposite number. This was the pattern when he met Kim in Singapore last month and in Hamburg during the G20, when he dined alone with Putin and the Russian leader’s translator. As a result, there was no official US record of what was discussed. John Kennedy at least had his own interpreter and note taker when he indulged his desire to go head-to-head with Khrushchev. Neville Chamberlain, the pioneer of modern summitry, deliberately relied on the German interpreter during his first meeting with Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden in 1938 – so keen was he to show his trust in the Führer. The Foreign Office, left in the dark about what they discussed, was appalled.

So a one-on-one meeting is high-risk. All depends on the skill, judgement and dexterity of the two principals. And on this, Putin is supremely confident and experienced. He is, after all, a trained KGB counter-intelligence officer, who built his subsequent career on his ability to manipulate every person he deals with. Putin is also a strategist: he prepares carefully for meetings, always thinking about what he wants to achieve. He will be on the look-out for anything that Trump blurts out which he can then exploit afterwards in a press conference – statements on the record that fit his agenda issues, such as the Crimea or Syria.

Trump, on the other hand, despises preparation – rejecting even daily intelligence reports. Whereas earlier presidents received a detailed summit briefing book on key issues, often several hundred pages long, Trump wants at most bullet points on a page or two and what he calls “killer graphics”. He often has little idea of wider context or of the implications of what he’s saying. For this president, intuition matters more than knowledge; style trumps substance.

What will be transmitted on screen is primarily for domestic benefit. Trump is acutely conscious of his political base, especially ahead of the midterm elections in November. The recent flurry of summitry is one of his weapons; another is the “get tough” policy on immigrants. Putin, too, is playing to the gallery. The summit comes on the back of the World Cup extravaganza, a huge PR success for his government, which has deliberately (and doubtless temporarily) relaxed its normally tight regulations on public gatherings to present Russia in the best light to foreigners. The meeting in Helsinki will come the day after Putin has hosted the World Cup final in Moscow.

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Yet part of the fascination of this summit lies in its unpredictability. That’s not just because of Trump’s nature but also because Putin’s position is weaker than it looks. In March 2018 the Trump administration implemented America’s largest ever expulsion of Russian diplomats (60 in all), acting in conjunction with its European allies over the Skripal affair in Salisbury. Nor is there any sign that Trump is ready to lift the post-Crimea sanctions that are hurting the Putin inner circle and Russia’s economy. Even if he wanted to, his hands are tied by Congress.

What’s more, Putin’s Russia is a bit of a Potemkin village: the economy of this huge country is roughly comparable in size to that of Italy. Despite its internet revolution, Russia has failed to diversify fundamentally from its Cold War-era dependence on oil and natural gas. Beyond the Westernised glitz of Moscow, rural poverty is deep and endemic. Political protest simmers beneath the surface.

Ultimately, both leaders are showmen. Trump wants a grand spectacle. Putin has more substantive aims, but he will also settle with the fact of just meeting because that moves Russia out of its pariah position. The encounter could prove more favourable for Russia if the Nato summit in Brussels, scheduled to take place on 11 and 12 July before the meeting with Putin, ends up being as acrimonious as the Quebec G7.

At the very least, we can expect Trumputin to be a riveting double act. And, as light relief between Brussels and Helsinki, there is the president’s long-delayed trip to Britain – downgraded  from a “state visit” to a “working visit”, mostly held, inauspiciously, on Friday 13 July. It sounds like the main attractions for Trump will be tea with the Queen and then playing on one of his golf courses in Scotland. But maybe he will also reaffirm the “special relationship” after full and frank discussions with Theresa May?

Or maybe not. After all, a “woman leader” is almost a contradiction in terms for Trump. For him, real world celebrity diplomacy is reserved only for alpha males.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at Cambridge University. Kristina Spohr will be the inaugural Helmut Schmidt distinguished professor at the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS – Johns Hopkins University, Washington

This article appears in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce