The Trump-Putin summit earlier this week was a disappointment, although probably not for the reasons one might think. At a time when U.S.-Russia relations are at rock bottom, a nuclear arms race between the two is imminent, NATO has embarked on its largest military build-up since the Cold War and the two countries jockey for power in several proxy wars, the meeting produced scant progress on resolving these tensions.
There was no statement or signed agreement, with Putin merely mentioning during the post-summit press conference that he had given Trump “a number of specific suggestions” related to arms control that the two could work on in the future. Both made sure to back Israel in its security concerns, while Putin criticized Trump for tearing up the Iran deal.
It was a far cry from Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s initial 1985 meeting in Geneva, which at least produced a joint statement and several tentative agreements on future arms control. Yet the substance of this summit was an element virtually ignored in the vast majority of press coverage.
U.S. lawmakers and officials, news outlets and various commentators had fiercely opposed the meeting from the get-go. Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice called it “dangerous and counterproductive.” The Washington Post editorial board argued that simply agreeing to meet with Putin was “kowtowing” to him. Much as they had with Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, Bloomberg and Reuters writers warned that dignifying Putin with a meeting would grant him “status as a great power” — which must be news to every other president and world leader who’s met with a Russian president before.
For some outside of the United States, the view was rather different.
Only last month, Austrian journalist Armin Wolf had questioned Putin about why he hadn’t met with Trump 18 months into his presidency when Bush and Obama had both done so within six. Pavel Palazhchenko, Gorbachev’s interpreter during his 1980s summits with Reagan, similarly complained about this, arguing that “two countries like these can’t afford a total absence of top-level negotiations for a year and a half.”
Even the secretary-general of NATO — a creation of the Cold War—affirmed that it’s “totally in line with NATO policies to talk to Russia, to meet with Russian leaders. We don’t want a new Cold War.” The UN secretary-general also gave his guarded approval, with his spokesperson saying that “we welcome meetings between leaders that can help to encourage good bilateral relations.”
One major proponent of the meeting was Gorbachev himself, the former Soviet leader and Putin critic who is lauded by some for helping bring an end to the Cold War. Gorbachev had high hopes for this past Monday, declaring it a potential “major landmark.”
The summit ultimately fell short of these hopes. As some independent Russian outlets argued, Putin, who’s currently embroiled in a domestic battle over pension reform, got a solid domestic public relations win, while the summit’s success will depend on future, more substantive agreements. Palazhchenko, Gorbachev’s interpreter, believes it nonetheless may afford a much-needed opportunity to “normalize the [top-level] dialogue” between the two countries.
“Dangerous, disgraceful, jaw-dropping”
One would be forgiven for thinking U.S. media had spent the past week covering an entirely different event. Initial opposition to the meeting intensified with the release of Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Russian hackers last Friday—reportedly released with the approval of Trump, who thought it would strengthen his negotiating hand. Pundits as well as prominent officials — many of them left-of-center — issued demands to scuttle the meeting.
There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Trump’s conduct, from the fact that he recklessly went into the meeting with only an interpreter (as he had with North Korea), to his sometimes reluctance to be more confrontational with brutal heads of state like Putin, to his failure to secure meaningful concessions. There’s also Trump’s total inability to control his addled stream of consciousness and adhere to the careful language of diplomacy.
Many criticisms focused on Trump’s closed-door meeting with Putin, as well as the U.S. president’s refusal during the press conference to acknowledge the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russians had attempted to influence the 2016 election. The collective rebukes reached what can only be described as hysterical levels. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said it was “disgraceful,” and “jaw-dropping” to “see a U.S. president capitulate to a dictator.” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) declared it “shameful” that a president would “place blame on the United States for Russian aggression,” a sentiment shared by other lawmakers. Hillary Clinton, Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert lined up with former national security officials and a coterie of neoconservatives, including Liz Cheney, to accuse Trump of treason and betrayal. One individual even compared the press conference to Kristallnacht.
But much of the anger in this case revolves around Trump questioning the apparently infallible conclusions of intelligence agencies. Much outrage is also focused on Trump for blaming past American administrations for the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, an act that puts him in the league of other noted anti-American radicals like former CIA chief and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Such outrage isn’t always mobilized. As Juan Cole has pointed out, these criticisms are never lobbed at Trump’s servility to Benjamin Netanyahu, despite the Israeli prime minister’s arguably much more appalling record on racism and human rights (and Israel’s far greater influence on US policy). Nor was it launched at Trump’s about face on Saudi Arabia, who he spent the campaign attacking, before breaking from precedent after his inauguration by making it the location of his first foreign trip, where he dined and danced with the country’s war criminal leaders. Trump has similarly sidled up to Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
It was also the same kind of deferential flattery Trump showed to another dictator, Chinese President Xi Jinping, on two separate occasions, even going so far as to place blame on the United States for the deteriorated U.S.-Chinese relationship, and despite spending 2015 and 2016 bitterly attacking China. One of these summits was called a success because “the two sides got to understand each other and they found a way to pull back from the brink.”
More alarmingly, last week’s events have led to widespread, blithe proclamations that the hacking of Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails was not only an “attack” on the scale of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, but that it constituted an act of war. Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.) called for a massive cyberattack that would “cripple everything” in Russia in response, a disproportionate escalation. After all, the Kremlin is accused of spear phishing to release embarrassing information about a politician; Cohen is calling for the hacking of infrastructure to create death and destruction among the Russian population. One piece, appearing in Politico, made vague demands for a “call to arms” and a “fight” against what was termed the “evil genius” of Russia.
This kind of overheated rhetoric is perilous.
For one, defining hacking as a declaration of war is a radical expansion of that word’s meaning, and suggests military retaliation as an appropriate response to a spear phishing effort. It’s not only absurd on its face, but a particularly dangerous idea to egg on in this current climate.
It’s worth asking, too, what the implications of such an idea would be for the governments in the Five Eyes alliance, given that they are both far more prolific perpetrators of the “information warfare” Russia is currently being accused of, and have a long history of interfering in other countries’ domestic politics. Does this give other nations license to declare war against the US and other Western countries?
But this increasingly frenzied discourse is also harmful to future peace efforts. Like it or not, the options with Russia are either escalating confrontation leading to possible war, or high-level, comprehensive bilateral talks, hopefully with an eye on reducing nuclear stockpiles. Nobody prefers to have Trump and Putin at the helm of this effort, but it beats World War III.
The current climate — in which overtures toward Russia are viewed as inherently suspect, media outlets and pundits unanimously call for war and denigrate peace efforts, and liberals jump on “the treason train” — is not conducive to this.
These attacks won’t stay limited to Trump and his investigation-tainted tenure. When Rand Paul attempted to block a vote for the expansion of NATO last year, John McCain accused him of “working for Vladimir Putin.” Paul was more recently called a “traitor” for saying that spying and election interference is an activity all major powers, including the United States, engage in. After recently visiting Russia and pushing back against the notion of the country as an American “enemy,” Glenn Greenwald was falsely labeled a “paid agent of Moscow” by an MSNBC contributor.
At some point, a future — hopefully progressive — president must try to resolve long-festering tensions with Russia. The current atmosphere, whipped up largely by a coalition of right-wing hawks and Trump-loathing liberals, increases the danger that the rhetoric being wildly flung about now will be repurposed by pro-war forces to kill those future efforts. More likely, any future candidate might preemptively tack as far to the right as possible, lest they be accused of being insufficiently anti-Putin. CNN analyst Asha Rangappa has already criticized Bernie Sanders because his Twitter timeline has “no RTs of *anyone* else’s condemnations.”
And what will it all be for? It certainly won’t pay any electoral dividends: according to a recent Gallup poll, less than 0.5 percent of Americans think the “situation with Russia” is the most important problem facing the United States.
Give de-escalation a chance
Trump and Putin are both reactionary, kleptocratic leaders engaged in a variety of ghastly activities both at home and abroad. They also happen to have control of more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads and, despite the tenor of most Western reporting on their relationship, have only been moving closer and closer to conflict over the past year and a half.
The panicked response to the summit by much of the media and liberal establishment is perhaps understandable, given Trump’s traumatic 2016 victory, and the never-ending wave of sensationalistic reporting on the still-unclear “Russiagate” scandal. This kind of overheated, ultra-nationalistic rhetoric is not only wrong-headed: In a time like this, it is irresponsible. One can oppose both Putin or Trump while supporting a de-escalation of tensions and greater cooperation between the countries they lead.
It once took getting to the brink of nuclear war for the world to grasp this concept. Is that what it’s going to take again?
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.