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Prior to President Trump’s dismal performance at Monday’s meeting with Russian despot Vladimir Putin, I expressed bafflement over his longstanding insistence that we need to have good relations with Moscow. This has never made sense to me. We have often done quite well, thank you very much, while having a strained modus vivendi with Moscow, even when it was the seat of a much more important power than today’s Russia.
It is not possible to have good relations with a thug regime unless one is willing to overlook and effectively ratify its thug behavior. Yet the widely perceived “need” to have good relations with Russia leads seamlessly to a second wrongheaded notion: It was appropriate, indeed essential, for the two leaders to meet at a ceremonial summit.
There is no need, nor is it desirable, for the president of the United States to give the dictator of the Kremlin the kind of prestigious spectacle Putin got in Helsinki. When I’ve made this point, as recently as Monday night in a panel on The Story, Martha MacCallum’s Fox News program, I’ve gotten pushback that, I respectfully suggest, misses the point.
The counterargument, premised on the fact that it is important for the United States and Russia to have dialogue, maintains that this dialogue must be conducted at the chief-executive-to-chief-executive level. There is, after all, a long history of such meetings, tracing back to FDR’s recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 (only after, I would note, years of antagonistic relations following the October Revolution).
To be clear, I did not and do not take the position that the United States should not have contacts with Russia in areas of mutual concern, or that it should not defuse tensions lest they escalate into unnecessary confrontations between the world’s two dominant nuclear powers. But these communications channels have long existed. They range from diplomatic, military, intelligence, and even law-enforcement contacts all the way up to occasional phone calls between the heads of state, and even the odd sidelines conferral between leaders at this or that multilateral conference.
The question, to the contrary, is whether the president of the United States should hold summit-style meetings with the Russian despot, complete with the pride, pomp, and circumstance of a glorious press conference, at which the two stand before the world as if they were amiable peers, trying their best to address the world’s problems.
We are no longer in the era of the Second World War, or even the Cold War. We are not in a ferocious global conflict in which a grudging alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union makes sense (especially when the Russians are taking the vast majority of the casualties). Nor are we in a bipolar global order in which we are rivaled by a tyrannical Soviet empire. Modern Russia is a fading country. Yes, it has a worrisome nuclear stockpile, strong armed forces, and highly capable intelligence services; but these assets can scarcely obscure Russia’s declining population, pervasive societal dysfunction (high levels of drunkenness, disease, and unemployment), low life expectancy, and third-rate economy. Putin’s regime — more like a marriage of rulers and organized crime than a principled system of government — must terrorize its people to maintain its grip on power.
We don’t need summit meetings between our head of state and theirs. Even during the Cold War, when it could rightly be argued that we had to deal with our ubiquitous geopolitical foe, such meetings did not happen very often. For example, in the decade-plus between President Kennedy’s Vienna meeting with Khrushchev and President Nixon’s trip to Moscow, there appears to have been just one meeting (between LBJ and Alexei Kosygin in 1967). Contact was also sparse in the decade between the end of the Nixon–Ford term and Reagan’s first meeting with Gorbachev in 1985 (after which the meetings became more frequent as the Soviet Union declined and collapsed). Many of these meetings are memorable precisely because they were unusual events. Whether the top-level U.S.–U.S.S.R. meetings succeeded or not, they were arguably worth having because there was something potentially highly beneficial in them for us.
That is not true of top-level meetings with Putin’s Russia. We could have them or not have them and nothing would change for the better — in fact, as yesterday shows, things are more apt to change for the worse. Putin should be made to earn his meeting with America’s president by good behavior.
Let’s consider the background circumstances of Monday’s meeting.
There is, of course, the cyber-espionage attack on the election. Trump being Trump, he is unable to separate (a) the way Russia’s perfidy has been exploited by his political opponents to attack him (i.e., the unsuccessful attempt to delegitimize his presidency) from (b) Russia’s perfidy itself, as an attack on the United States. No matter how angry thispresident may be at the Democrats and the media, the significance to any president of Russia’s influence operation must be that it succeeded beyond Putin’s wildest dreams.
Whether you’re a Democrat invested in the narrative that Russia’s shenanigans cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, or a Republican in denial that Putin sought to boost Trump at Clinton’s expense, the reality is that Putin was undoubtedly trying to sow discord in our body politic. That interpretation of events is something any president should be able to rally most of the country behind. The provocation warrants a determined response that bleeds Putin, the very opposite of kowtowing to the despot on the world stage.
Now, let’s put to the side the recent cyber-espionage and other influence operations directed at our country. It has been only four months since Putin’s regime attempted to murder former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the British city of Salisbury. It has been only a few days since a British couple fell into a coma after exposure to the same Soviet-era nerve agent (Novichok) used on the Skripals. The second incident happened just seven miles from the first, strongly suggesting that Putin’s regime is guilty of depraved indifference to the dangers its targeted assassinations on Western soil — the territory of our closest ally — pose to innocent bystanders. In 2006, the Putin regime similarly murdered a former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London, poisoning his tea with radioactive polonium. Meanwhile, reporting that is based mainly on the account of a former KGB agent (who defected to the West and has been warned he is a target) indicates that Putin’s operatives are working off a hit list of eight people (including Sergei Skirpal) who reside in the West.
Putin’s annexation of Crimea was just the most notorious of his recent adventures in territorial aggression. He has effectively annexed the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the separatist war he is puppeteering in eastern Ukraine still rages in this its fifth year. He is casting a menacing eye at the Baltics. This, even as Russia props up the monstrous Assad regime in Syria and allies with Iran, the jihadist regime best known for sponsoring anti-American terrorism around the world.
And just five months ago, at a major speech touting improved weapons capabilities, Putin spiced up the demonstration with a video diagramming a hypothetical nuclear missile attack on . . . yes . . . Florida.
There is no doubt that we have to deal with this monster. Realpolitik adherents may even be right that there is potential for cooperation with Russia in areas of mutual interest (at least provided that the dealing is done with eyes open about Putin’s core anti-Americanism). But there is no reason why we need to deal with Russia in a forum at which the U.S. president stands there and pretends that a brutal autocrat, who has become incalculably rich by looting his crumbling country, is a statesman promoting peace and better relations.
I would say that no matter who was president. In the case of President Trump specifically, for all his “you’re fired” bravado and reports of mercurial outbursts at some subordinates, he does not like unpleasant face-to-face confrontations. He may unload at a rally, but face to face, the president’s m.o. is to defuse confrontation with unctuous banter — an easy solution for someone who seems not to believe that anything he says in the moment will bind him in the future. This, inevitably, leads to foolish and sometimes reprehensible assertions (e.g., saying, in apparent defense of Putin, “There are a lot of killers. What? You think our country’s so innocent?”).
The president appears to subscribe to the Swamp school of thought that negotiations are good for their own sake — though he conflates what is good for him (promoting his image as a master deal-maker) with what is good for the country (negotiations often aren’t). This is another iteration of the president’s tendency to personalize things, particularly relations between governments. That trait puts him at a distinct disadvantage with someone like Putin, who knows well the uses of flattery and grievance.
Summit meetings with brutal dictators do not well serve the president. More important, they do not well serve the nation.