Diplomacy breaks out at the U.S.-Russia meeting
The self-proclaimed “dealmaker” finally got the beginnings of what could be an important diplomatic agreement in Friday’s Russian-American summit in Hamburg. President Trump appears to have avoided big mishaps that sometimes plague such great-power talks.
The importance of the meeting between Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin isn’t so much in the details, though the proposed cease-fire in Syria could save lives in that tragic conflict. It’s more in the restoration of dialogue between the United States and Russia after a long period in which relations had deteriorated to the danger point.
For Trump, the meeting marked the fulfillment of a controversial promise he made early in the 2016 campaign to seek improved relations with Moscow. Trump may claim a “win,” but the greater beneficiary is probably Putin, who seized this opportunity to “come in from the cold” after the sanctions and diplomatic isolation that followed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.
Trump bought the Syria deal at relatively low cost. Sanctions against Russia remain in place; seized Russian diplomatic compounds haven’t been returned. It was suspected that Trump’s advisers discussed removing sanctions after he won the election; if any such deal exists, it hasn’t been disclosed.
Trump opened the meeting by raising the issue of Russian meddling in the election, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; whether this was a fuzzy pro-forma statement or a real protest isn’t clear. Putin is said to have denied interference, but his response wouldn’t be credible, no matter what he said.
The Syria agreement is the most important “deliverable” from Friday’s meeting. The stage is now set for other U.S.-Russia efforts to de-escalate the conflict and begin to stabilize the country. For the Syrian opposition, Friday’s most important development was Tillerson’s announcement that President Bashar al-Assad will eventually leave power. Assad will probably resist, as may Iran. But if the United States and Russia are coguarantors of this transition, it’s likely to move ahead.
Friday’s meeting also produced some useful dialogue about North Korea. Tillerson said Trump has discussed curbing North Korea’s weapons programs with both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. There’s no accord on how to pressure Pyongyang — and indeed, some obvious disagreements. But at least there’s a public recognition of the seriousness of the problem.
Summits can sometimes be dangerous. Western politicians can make unwise concessions to autocratic leaders. Apart from his still-mysterious exchange with Putin about Russian meddling, Trump doesn’t appear to have made such mistakes here. Instead, this was a meeting that reminded us of the benefits of diplomacy.