Now that the document concluding the US-North Korean summit in Singapore has been signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim, the world’s political commentators are busy making their assessments of what exactly its vague points on denuclearization really mean, in what ways it is historic and unlike previous agreements between US administrations and the North Korean regime of Kim’s father and grandfather.
In this brief essay, I will not join the pileup on that scrimmage line but look in a slightly different direction. I will be asking how the image of Donald Trump, the courageous peacemaker, as he immodestly styled himself in his remarks about this “very historical” event at the press conference which followed the signing ceremony, how this Trump can or cannot now move on to a similarly epochal summit with Vladimir Putin to end the risky and volatile confrontation with the world’s other nuclear super power so that we all can sleep calmly.
The idea of such a summit has recently been advanced publicly by some of my friends and colleagues in the Russian expert community who are alarmed by the recent incidents we have had with Russia in places like Syria where our troops are engaged backing opposing forces within close proximity. And they also think back to the promise of normalization of relations with Russia that Trump held out repeatedly in speeches during the electoral campaign of 2016 that brought him to the presidency. Some of these friends even hope that a Putin-Trump summit could be the starting point of a global strategic partnership between the United States and the Russian Federation.
In our times, Russia and its president are reviled daily in US media. In our times, the House of Representatives votes 419 – 3 and the Senate votes 98 – 2 for the Russia Sanctions bill (August 2017). Under these circumstances, it takes a large measure of courage to speak out in favor of a summit with Vladimir Putin and I take my hat off to these colleagues. However, I firmly believe they are dead wrong in their optimism over what is feasible and they are dead wrong in their pessimism over the risk of a great power war today.
Both parties to the US-Korean rapprochement we witnessed today had reasons to claim a win on the basis of an anodyne joint declaration which only begins a long process of negotiation and mutual concrete steps towards denuclearization. This was an artificial temporary resolution to a crisis that was artificially created by the same parties in the second half of 2017. Both then and now, the outcomes have served domestic political agendas.
More importantly for the overriding question I have posed, the question of normalizing relations with North Korea has enjoyed far more support in the American foreign policy establishment than does normalizing relations with Russia, and this is so for easily identifiable objective reasons. As a straw in the wind, I would mention that the November-December 2016 issue of the iconic handbook of the establishment, Foreign Affairs magazine, carried an essay urging the incoming President to work for peace in the Korean peninsula and to step back from military exercises and other provocative actions. No comparable statements were carried with respect to resetting of relations with Russia. On the Korean issue, US establishment opinion is divided; on Russia it is solidly united.
It bears mention that the one-on-one meeting of Trump and Kim accompanied by interpreters is said to have lasted one half hour. They emerged from this test still smiling and shaking hands and that is all that was required of them. The document they signed was obviously prepared in advance, as well it might, since it is almost without content. It all could easily have been prepared personally by Secretary of State Pompeo together with the handful of CIA specialists he brought with him to his new position.
In the case of Russia, such preparations for dealing with Russia’s Putin and such an outcome document would be worthless. In the case of Russia, Trump’s Secretary of State would be an obstacle, not an enabler. As head of US intelligence, Pompeo correctly identified Russia to be one of the United States’ most dangerous adversaries and he helped to mobilize foreign and military policy to meet this challenge. And where are the worker bees, where are the Sherpas who could prepare for a substantive and valuable summit with Putin? They simply do not exist on the US side at present. It would be a great task to bring together the needed expertise in arms control just to formulate the road map and populate the working groups necessary for its execution.
To be very specific, Russia’s utility to the United States rests almost exclusively on its quality as a security threat. Any ‘détente’ or relaxation of relations with Russia can only loosen the American choke-hold on Europe that NATO represents. There is no conceivable compensatory benefit from normal relations that would arise from across the board compromises with Russia on the many issues Moscow has raised, starting with respect of its national interests in its immediate geographic neighborhood. The logic on the US side is for cherry-picking, identifying problems of limited scope where cooperation with Russia is mutually beneficial and otherwise staying on opposite sides of a barricade.
A Putin-Trump summit can have only negative consequences given that Trump is hemmed in on all sides at home by the defenders of a bipartisan foreign policy that has hardened over the past 25 years. Anything he agrees with Putin will either lead to his impeachment for high crimes or will be blocked in Congress. Of course, if the power balance changes in Trump’s favor following the midterm elections in November, this issue can be revisited. But we are not there yet.
In the meantime, it would appear that Trump realizes the limits on his powers and has contented himself with using the Pentagon to ensure the bottom line: open communications with their Russian counterparts and clear identification of the red lines of each side to avoid misunderstandings and quickly correct unforeseen complications. In this sense, we can take great reassurance from the 6 hour face to face meeting last week in Finland of the US head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford and Russian chief of staff General Gerasimov. For all practical purposes, that is our guaranty of peace until better times arrive in the US political establishment.