Writing in his space last week, Jacob Heilbrunn quipped that President Donald Trump’s summit in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un went so well for the North Korean fat man that Vladimir Putin must now be itching to meet the Donald as soon as he can. Given how little Kim gave up in Singapore and how flimsy the page and a half communique he signed up to was, it’s hard to take issue with Jacob’s point.
But the more I think about a possible Trump-Putin blockbuster this year (perhaps in July), the more I’m inclined to support it. Relations between the United States and Russia have been awful for a long time, and it’s hard to see how the status-quo ante can be changed unless it is shattered into a million pieces. And if Trump is talented at anything in this world (besides self-promotion) it’s shattering things.
The know-it-alls in Washington, D.C. will tell you that a sit down with Vlad would be a rookie mistake and a poor error in judgment. Ahead of any Trump-Putin summit, the Democrats, most of whom seem to believe that the 45th POTUS is a real life Manchurian Candidate taking orders from the Kremlin, would whine about how Trump is sullying America’s good name by breathing the same air as kleptocrat dictator. Moralists such as Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain would jump on their high horse and tweet out how weak it is for Trump to give the thuggish, gangster-like KGB operative the time of day. You can bet the word “appeasement” would come up.
But here’s the thing: the Establishmentarians haven’t exactly had a stellar record on Russia. Because the U.S. is the wealthiest, most diversified, and powerful country on the planet, the foreign policy elites that have ruled the roost since the Berlin Wall can rumbling down are all too enamoured by their own views. They tend to think that if we just kick the Russians in the mouth enough times or throw some more Treasury Department regulations Moscow’s way, Putin will snap out of his czarist delusions and begin following the rules-based international order (a favourite phrase).
The only delusion, however, is believing that Putin wants to be a participating member of the global order as we understand it – an order the Russians see as American crafted, American dominated, and American run. You don’t have to be a scholar of Russia to know that Putin has been screaming at the top of his lungs about how unfair this order is at least since 2005, when he marvelled in public about the Soviet days when Moscow was a respected superpower rather than just another regional power with a second-rate economy.
What is the harm in going through with a meeting between Trump and Putin? Granted, there is a credible fear that, in Trump’s bewildering urge for friendship with the Russian strongman, he may do something stupid like accept Moscow’s annexation of Crimea or trash NATO as a club of freeloaders with a smirking Putin at his side. But Trump’s staffers have probably taken those worries into consideration anyway.
Global politics is a tough business. Sometimes, a country has to work with people that are troublemakers, brutes, incompetents, kleptocrats. That’s the nature of the world. Trump should proceed with another summit and take joy in watching the proponents of conventionality squirm in their offices.