Diplo­macy breaks out at the U.S.-Rus­sia meet­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUN­DAY OPIN­ION - — David Ig­natius

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.

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