As a historian of the Cold War, I have a passing knowledge of a number of meetings between Soviet/Russian leaders and U.S. presidents. Some are famous for getting relations off on the wrong foot (e.g. Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961); others set the stage for great breakthroughs, but were seen as failures at the time (e.g. Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986); still others are largely forgotten (e.g. Johnson and Kosygin at Glassboro, NJ in 1967). It is impossible to predict how we will remember the first substantive meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
We can see, however, what President Trump wants us to remember. “I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly,…have not been getting along very well for the last number of years,” Trump said at the opening of the meeting in Helsinki. “I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.”
President Trump has long said, going back to his campaign, that it is important to have good relations with Russia. I agree. I’ve never seen meetings between American leaders and senior government officials and their foreign counterparts as a “reward” for good or bad behavior. It’s called diplomacy. If this first meeting does set a tone for cooperation between the two countries, historians might eventually judge it worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the context surrounding this meeting is not conducive to long-term success. Credible evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, affirmed in detail as recently as Friday, casts a long shadow, and makes it very difficult to make progress on matters of mutual interest. Any genuine breakthrough will immediately run afoul of U.S. domestic politics. That President Trump continues to dismiss the Mueller investigation as a “rigged witchhunt” and mostly blames his predecessor for failing to call the Russian election hack to the attention of the American people merely confirms a widespread perception that he doesn’t take it seriously.
In addition, on the heels of last week’s NATO summit, and the G-7 meeting last month, there is the unsettling fact that President Trump seems to prefer meeting with autocrats than with leaders of democracies. We saw that again today, with President Trump praising Vladimir Putin effusively days after he humiliated European leaders. He also spoke warmly of their mutual friend, China’s Xi Jinping. Last month, the president joked about how North Koreans “sit up at attention” when Kim Jong Un speaks, and he would like “my people to do the same.” He seems particularly impressed by how others are able to stifle domestic dissent. This behavior and rhetoric plays into his critics’ warnings about Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts, and today’s meeting does nothing to ease such concerns.
President Trump’s idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, however, I will be paying attention to what, if anything, emerges from his meeting with Vladimir Putin. These could include agreement to discuss nuclear arms control, tamping down the civil war in Syria, and possibly reaching some resolution on Ukraine. But we’d all be advised to wait a bit before rendering a definitive judgement.