Putin and Trump Have Nothing to Talk About

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Singapore meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un made for a great propaganda film for North Korean TV, with swelling music, a swooning commentator and swanky pageantry. The planned summit between Trump and President Vladimir Putin won’t even produce that; it will be a pure waste of time for everyone involved.

The meeting, confirmed by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, would serve two purposes: The U.S. president loves playing the international statesman and Putin likes to look reasonable and constructive. They will have an opportunity to inhabit those roles. But there is no agenda for them to discuss, much less a substantive goal for their talks. And even if they appear to agree on something, it will likely be dialed back by Trump’s advisers and Congress, which will want to ensure that he isn’t perceived as Putin’s pawn.

The two leaders could discuss Trump’s suggestion that Russia should rejoin the G-8. The agenda could also cover the U.S. president’s reported stance on Crimea, which he said belonged to Russia because its residents speak that language (and not because Putin annexed the peninsula in 2014). But Trump doesn’t have the authority to extend invitations on behalf of the other members of the group of industrialized nations, which have been explicit about not wanting Putin in the club. In addition, Putin doesn’t seem eager to rejoin that group; he appears happy to be part of the G-20 format along with other non-Western leaders such as Xi Jinping of China, Narendra Modi of India and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

Nor is Trump authorized to recognize the Crimea annexation even if he wanted to. It’s up to Congress, which could also lift Crimea-related sanctions, and there’s no chance either will happen. At a news conference in Moscow after his meeting with Putin, Bolton said the U.S. didn’t regard Crimea as part of Russia. Nor did Bolton dangle the possibility of any sanctions being lifted before the Russian-Ukraine conflict is resolved.

Still, there are other things Putin might want from Trump, including a pullback of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces from Russian borders, a U.S. recommitment to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a withdrawal from Syria, a return to the Iran nuclear deal and the end of U.S. support for Ukraine. None of those concessions are on the table.

The reason the U.S. can’t concede anything to Putin has little to do with principles and values, or with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into putative collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in 2016. Instead, no give and take is possible because Putin has nothing to offer the U.S. as there is no part of the Trump agenda that Russia could help advance.

In Trump’s trade wars, Russia, a big aluminum and steel producer, is a passive victim. In supplying energy to Europe, it is inevitably a U.S. competitor. In the Middle East, it can only be a situational ally if it betrays its current military alliance with Iran and stops trying to fix oil prices with Saudi Arabia. Both are impossible. 

The meeting will inevitably be compared to the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which is regarded as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. But that gathering, though it was unsuccessful on the surface, had a specific arms-control agenda. If there’s any historical analog, it would be the 1959 Kitchen Debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. At an exhibit of U.S. technological achievements in Moscow, the two argued rather good-naturedly about the nature of the competition between their countries. Nixon said the U.S. had the technological edge and Khrushchev argued that the Soviet Union was playing a long game that it would win.

That meeting wasn’t meant to produce a specific result, just to break the Cold War ice (though that didn't prevent a multitude of severe clashes over the subsequent 30 years). Trump and Putin might be able to take some of the heat out of what the former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has termed a “hot peace.”

With his gifts as a showman, Trump could pull off a Kitchen Debate-like scene. But Putin is a manipulative control freak, the exact opposite of the extroverted, excitable and eccentric Khrushchev. And besides, where Nixon and Khruschev were genuine ideological opponents, Putin and Trump have nothing to argue about. Both like money and winning zero-sum games; both hate playing by any rules but their own. Neither has a clear ideology or a set of beliefs that isn’t dictated by expediency.

The summit can only be a fake, postmodern reenactment of the Nixon-Khrushchev episode. Someday, Russian and U.S. leaders will meet for an explicit discussion of what they can offer each other. Trump and Putin aren’t likely to make that kind of history.

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