Here’s a headline that hasn’t aged so well: “The Surprising Promise of the Trump-Putin Summit.”
In Foreign Affairs, a mere week ago, the historian and former diplomat Michael Kimmage made the case that the real action at the Helsinki meeting would quite likely occur behind the scenes, in unglamorous conversations among midlevel diplomats, who would begin much-needed exchanges about thorny issues including Ukraine and Syria.
Then President Trump stepped up to the mike. In a now-infamous press conference, he cast doubt on the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia hacked Democratic politicians and generally interfered in the 2016 election. (He subsequently backpedaled, unconvincingly.)
Trump “has destroyed his credibility on Russia even with people who might be Trump voters on other issues,” said Kimmage, who teaches at the Catholic University and who served, from 2014 to 2016, on the policy planning staff at the State Department, focusing on Russia and Ukraine.
Kimmage remains sympathetic to the general effort to reconnect with Russia — he supports “normalization” of diplomatic ties though not the lifting of sanctions — but now suspects it may have been a mistake to begin the talks with a meeting of presidents. We talked about the extraordinarily low level of diplomatic contact the US and Russia have had in recent years, the legacy of the 1975 Helsinki accords, and the likely consequences of Trump’s disastrous performance. The conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
In your Foreign Affairs article, you start by mentioning some of the famous summits between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later the US and Russia: Roosevelt in Tehran and Yalta; Truman in Potsdam; Reagan in Reykjavik. Are there any historic parallels for what we just saw in Helsinki?
No. I think the only one that comes remotely close is Kennedy-Khrushchev. They met in Vienna, and it was thought to be a bad meeting for Kennedy. He came back shaken: Apparently Khrushchev sort of upbraided him for being a young, inexperienced rich kid, and Kennedy was sort of taken aback. But there was no media chaos and no memorable press conference, and whatever went wrong for Kennedy, it was in the personal dynamics between the two of them. It was not a matter of messaging; it wasn’t about American foreign policy. It’s very hard to compare even that with what happened on Monday.
You had predicted that this was going to be — maybe “predicted” is too strong a word — you said this could be a quietly productive summit, despite all the hype. That doesn’t look like such a great prediction in retrospect, does it?
No. I think what I tried to present was the best-case scenario, and there were some substantial caveats in my piece, especially about election meddling. My cautious hope was that Trump would be unequivocal about it. I said that was crucial to the success of the meeting. What I was hoping for was that Trump would recede a bit into the background and that he would empower his staff — particularly [Mike] Pompeo, [John] Bolton, and [James] Mattis — to roll up their sleeves and see if they could accomplish something diplomatically with the Russians.
It’s not clear to me that in the private meetings that Trump had with Putin that that scenario is totally invalidated. But there’s no doubt that even if [substantive issues were] the centerpiece of their conversation, it’s all going to be overshadowed by the things that Trump said [publicly].
Is it at all possible that quiet productive diplomacy could continue, despite the furor over the press conference?
I think the meeting was defined by the press conference. Trump has had difficulty with his foreign policy from the beginning [in this way]: To succeed as a foreign policy president, he has to build credibility in the US. Ideally, he would do that in a bipartisan way, but at the very least, he has to do it with his own party. On Russia, there’s a real difference between Trump and almost all conventional Republicans.
So if Trump wants to accomplish something with the Russians — and he’s said he wants to, many times — he needs to be very aware of what the domestic response will be to this meeting. It seems he was either unaware of this or was unable to control himself, and has in the process destroyed his credibility on Russia even with people who might be Trump voters on other issues.
Congress was already at some considerable distance from Trump before this meeting, but I think with an election coming up, they are going to be forced to be at a greater distance. His room to maneuver is extremely small, and that’s entirely his own doing.
In your piece, you mentioned that we have not had a presidential-level summit in eight years, and that you’d have to go to the depths of the Cold War to find something similar. When was the last time we were out of top-level contact for eight years?
I’m not sure there’s ever been a stretch where there has been such low level of contact. Maybe from Potsdam, in ’45, to the death of Stalin might be a comparable period. Certainly, after Potsdam, Truman never sat down with Stalin again, so that might be an analogy. Otherwise, with Eisenhower, with Nixon, with Kennedy, a bit less with Johnson, a little less with Carter — but with Ford, with Reagan, you had president-to-president or president-to-general-secretary-level contact. What we’ve had in the last eight years is really quite unusual.
That was a point I was trying to make: With all the reasons there are to be critical of the Trump administration on Russia — and there are a hundred reasons — we want to be very aware of the cost of a non-relationship with Russia. I think it’s important not to forget that amid all this close attention to Trump’s words and Trump’s lack of diplomatic finesse.
You wrote that going into this summit, the model ought to be Helsinki in ’75. Can you remind us what came out of that meeting?
That [lasted] two years: ’75 was the end of the process. In 1975, after two years of grinding diplomacy, what the US and the Soviet Union and European powers agreed to was effectively two things, both of them very consequential. The first was that they guaranteed the borders of Europe — so post-World War II borders, which had been up for grabs until then, were guaranteed. That helped to make the revolution of 1989 peaceful. And, with the exception of Ukraine and Crimea, it’s still the order we are living with today.
The other achievement is a little more ironic. The Soviet Union, because it wanted to get this borders issue resolved, signed on to a series of human rights commitments. They signed them in a cynical spirit, thinking they could invalidate them back home after the moment of diplomatic breakthrough. But those human rights agreements proved to be extremely important. They fueled Sakharov’s dissident activities in the Soviet Union and Vaclav Havel’s actions in Czechoslovakia — [they were important] throughout Eastern Europe.
[Helsinki] was an enormously significant event in international diplomatic history, and it required two years of intensive diplomacy. When Gerald Ford and Brezhnev met in 1975, they were really coming in at the end of the process. It is instructive to remember that now.
Is the lesson that you need to lay the groundwork for these meetings?
Exactly. What the heads of state do — in diplomacy in general but this kind of diplomacy in particular — is important, but it’s less important than the work of faceless diplomats. The important thing is the empowerment of these diplomats, that they be given time and the confidence of leaders to get [their] work done. That was my improbable hope for the Trump-Putin meeting.
You’re in favor of the “normalization” of relations with Russia — which sounds a bit like the Trump position and puts you out of step with Congress and much of the foreign policy mainstream. How would you define normalization?
I think there should be regular meetings between the American president and the Russian president. I think the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have regular meetings with the State Department, and the Pentagon with the Ministry of Defense. Actually, the Pentagon and Ministry of Defense do have contact. That’s one area where there is, interestingly enough, a degree of normalcy.
I would make two points about this. There has since 2014 been an extended effort, really by the US — the Europeans are different in this regard — to isolate Russia. And this is a morally understandable position; it may even be diplomatically understandable, up to a point. But I think it hasn’t worked. Russia is too big to isolate. And I think we pay a price for isolating Russia in that we don’t have personal contacts. We don’t have a Rolodex of people to get in touch with; we don’t have the information that comes from face-to-face meetings with people.
These meetings can be maddening. They might stalemate. They might send espionage agents to meet with us. The meetings themselves are not guaranteed to have any success, but they are useful for our side to gain a clear sense of the other side.
So the current policy seems to not to have worked very well. [I also disagree] that when you sit down to meet with another country that it’s a kind of reward: You reward good behavior by meeting and you punish bad behavior by not meeting. I just don’t agree with that. I think we accomplished something important with Iran when we sat down with the Iranians. The US has been dealing with China, which is not an ally.
[Meetings] are not a reward, and it doesn’t mean that countries get concessions. It doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing with them. Indeed, you can use those meetings in the public sphere to express criticism and dissent. But we should be meeting.
Do you think the sanctions on Russia should be lifted?
No. Not at all. I don’t think normalization means that you’re softening your position. Sanctions are a crucial part of Crimea policy, a crucial part of Ukraine policy. They are connected with longstanding guarantees that have been offered not just to Ukraine but regarding regional European security. It would be madness to lift the sanctions without any movement on the Russian side.
In Foreign Affairs, you wrote that “an age of social media is prone to framing politics in cinematic terms,” suggesting that the press was going to overly focus on Trump. That has since become the conservative line: The press played up the the wrong things. Do you think the media shares any blame for the spectacle we saw?
I don’t think the press could have covered it differently. I don’t see any problems with how the press covered it. It’s a huge story, and it had to be covered. It’s very important news — and even events like Trump’s follow-up interview with Tucker Carlson is real news and deserves close public scrutiny, so I have no problem with the press in that regard.
The point that I was trying to make is itself a sort of boring one. It’s really about the “unspectacularness” of diplomacy. That for all of us to view diplomacy as a dramatic clash — or a dramatic friendship — [is a mistake]. For us to follow a story for two years, where people are really grinding through difficult diplomatic questions, that’s a much harder story to get across. I don’t think that’s the story of 2018; that’s clear at this stage. But I think that all of us need to get away from the soap opera of international politics and think about the practical issues that are at stake.
We have a situation in the Donbass, [in Ukraine], that is very messy that has fallen out of the news in many ways. The Donbass is very consequential to Russia’s future, to Ukraine’s future, and to Europe’s future. It’s hard to pay attention to now because nothing big is happening there, and yet it’s very important, so I would hope that readers would demand information about the Donbass now in addition to information about Trump and Putin. But it’s about adding this information [rather] than talking Trump or Putin out of the picture.
You proposed that there be ought to be working Russian-US committees in the State Department and in the Pentagon. What should they be concentrating on?
The US has to work with Russia on Syria. There is a brewing war between Iran and Israel centered on Syrian territory. US and Russia are important actors in this drama. And there’s really a need to communicate and to be in touch. Russia also seems to be reasserting control over at least part of Syria; that ought to be points of conversation between the US and Russia. I think arms control makes a great deal of sense. There are other issues that are potentially more positive — the Arctic, or space, environmental issues.
Is there any chance committees along those lines will be formed, after that summit?
What Trump just did in Helsinki is pull the rug out from under his feet in terms of dealing with Russia. I think he destroyed his credibility as a president on this issue. He merged the cheapest of campaign rhetoric with issues that relate to America’s standing in the world, that relate to America’s security, in ways that are grossly irresponsible.
I think in retrospect, what one can say about this meeting is that it was way too soon given the level of preparation, and probably it was just a bad idea to begin with.
If the president genuinely cared about improving the US Russian relationship, it is he who just killed the chance of that, by appearing so untrustworthy and so ill-prepared. You can’t blame Putin in this case; you can’t blame the media. It the president that has put himself in the place he is in.
CORRECTION, 7/21: This article originally misstated the city in which President Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev met. It was Vienna.
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