The Trump Putin Summit: Political Theatre but with real life consequences

So Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet in Helsinki tomorrow for a summit that is both long-anticipated and hastily-arranged. Ever since this meeting was announced, I have been contemplating writing an op ed piece about it, but have been a bit perplexed about exactly what to say – with no real policy agenda for the meeting and such mixed signals going into it from the American side, it could be a pivotal moment in US-Russian relations under Trump or vanish into obscurity almost immediately.

As the meeting has come closer, I have done a few radio interviews that have helped me to focus my thinking – so thank you, BBC Radio Wales for giving me the chance to try out these ideas!

One persistent thought is that this summit is, first and foremost, going to be a piece of political theatre. Summits always serve this purpose, in part, and can be as important for the signals that they send as they are for substantive changes that may follow. It is very clear what is wanted from the Russian side: Putin will use this meeting to demonstrate to audiences at home and abroad that Russia continues to be important, that Moscow’s opinions matter and that they must be consulted over the major issues of global politics. Throughout the Cold War, Moscow used superpower summits and nuclear arms control negotiations and treaties to make this sort of statement to world, so the elements of continuity are obvious.

What is new on this occasion, though, is that the US President also seems to be seeking affirmation and approval – but in this case, it is Donald Trump who is looking for the affirmation. Trump has a long history of expressing admiration for Putin and his leadership style, which Trump seems to regard as the epitome of strength. Everything I have seen about Trump’s comments about Putin and the American president’s behaviour towards him suggests that Trump sees Putin as the undisputed leader of the international club of strong man leaders, and craves a sign that Putin approves Trump’s membership application.

A second point about this upcoming summit is to wonder what kind of policy outcomes there might possibly be, if indeed substantive issues are discussed and decided. Putin’s likely agenda seems clear enough: a relaxation or even lifting of economic sanctions, a softening of the US position on Ukraine, perhaps the withdrawal of US forces from Syria and a further backing away from US commitments to its NATO members. There are many issues that the United States should be interested in pursuing, but the problem with generating lists of US foreign policy interests is that Trump himself is so erratic, especially when it comes to foreign policy, that it is almost impossible to identify an underpinning logic that might help us understand what he might be trying to achieve.

An end to the suffering brought about by the civil war in Syria would be a very important and worthwhile aim to work for, and as a key actor in that conflict, Russia could play a role in such a process, but on whose terms would a peace be agreed? Russia clearly wants to keep Assad in power. The US does not. Trump’s personal agenda when it comes to Syria seems to veer between wanting to demonstrate that he is not afraid to use military force, but worried about the high cost of continued US military involvement and wanting to bring the troops home. He also seems concerned about Iran’s influence in Syria and the region, and about Islamic State terrorism. But how these different factors are weighted by Trump – if, indeed, he thinks of them as connected at all – is a mystery.

Bringing an end to the conflict in Ukraine would also be very welcome, but again, on what terms? Trump has approved the supply of lethal arms to Ukraine’s forces fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, but has also indicated that he might agree to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As part of the discussion of the upcoming summit this morning on the radio with Vaughan Roderick, Stephen Kinnock, MP pointed out the limitations of foreign policy pursued on the basis of short-term transactions without underpinning values providing some strategic guidance. While I agree completely about the importance of values-led foreign policy, I do not discount the potential value of shorter-term transactions. Where Trump is concerned, however, the parameters of those transactions can change radically from day to day, so even that potential value is dubious.

Like so many others, I will be watching closely to see what we learn about the Helsinki summit after it happens. For at least part of the summit we will have to rely on the accounts of the two leaders themselves, though, as Trump and Putin have decided to meet one-on-one, with only translators present, before aides are allowed to join them. This means we may never have a definitive account of who said what, and who agreed to what.

What should we be looking for, then? Body language when the two men appear together, especially if there is any sense of one deferring to the other. Whether they seem comfortable in each other’s presence – Trump’s obvious levels of comfort vary dramatically depending on the company he is in. If they do have a joint press conference after they meet, as has been suggested, the language that they use to describe their discussions and agreements, if any, will be revealing. Both leaders enjoy playing up their image as hyper-masculine alpha male – how will they perform their masculinity on this occasion, when each will be the prime audience for the other?

Finally, I can’t wait to see what gift Trump is bringing for Putin. The Russian leader is famous for his love of animals and we are overdue a photo opportunity with Putin and a puppy.


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