Helsinki is nice. Finland is nice. Sibelius is nice – his Finlandia is magnificent and John Williams’ soaring main theme for the Harry Potter movies is pretty much Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony turned a bit more dissonant. All the voicings are the same. Finland is fine. Everyone should visit Helsinki. Donald Trump probably shouldn’t visit Helsinki, but he will:
President Trump plans to meet President Vladimir V. Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16 for one-on-one talks, the White House said on Thursday, a politically delicate meeting that will take place while the special counsel continues to investigate the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
That does make things a bit delicate but Trump doesn’t seem to care:
It will be the first formal summit meeting for Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, who have spoken together twice on the sidelines of annual gatherings of world leaders, and it will come at a particularly critical moment, with midterm elections looming in the United States.
“The two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia, and a range of national security issues,” the White House said in a statement.
That sounds innocent enough but it’s not:
The Helsinki talks, which will come on the heels of a NATO summit meeting in Brussels on July 11 and 12, could exacerbate American relations with European allies even as it eases tensions with Russia.
America’s European allies are worried. What will Trump agree to? Will they be left on their own? And then there’s Putin:
Mr. Trump this week sent his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, to Moscow, where he met on Wednesday with Mr. Putin.
Afterward, an aide to Mr. Putin, Yuri Ushakov, reiterated Moscow’s denial that it tried to influence the United States presidential election in 2016, comments that Mr. Trump cited on Thursday in a Twitter post before the meeting with Mr. Putin was announced.
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” Mr. Trump wrote.
All our intelligence services say Russia did meddle in our last election, and they can prove it. Trump pointed out that Putin said that Russia did no such thing. He shrugged. Who knows? Who’s to say? But the rest of the tweet was about Hillary Clinton. Forget about Putin. Lock HER up!
That plays well with his base but his base isn’t the rest of the world:
The potential for such a high-level meeting has concerned some American allies in Europe, particularly because of recent tensions between the Trump administration and traditional American allies including Canada, France and Germany.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said that it was important to get along with Russia and other countries.
The words “and other countries” seemed to be an afterthought, or something distasteful that some State Department wimp told him he had to say, because he’s been clear all along:
Early in the presidential campaign, before having secured the Republican nomination, Mr. Trump said he thought he and Mr. Putin would hit it off.
“I think I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Trump said in the summer of 2015.
Mr. Trump has also said he would consider inviting Mr. Putin to the White House, which would be the first visit by the Russian leader since 2005.
For now Helsinki will do, but the New York Times editorial board sees nothing but disaster here:
It’s good for American presidents to meet with adversaries, to clarify differences and resolve disputes. But when President Trump sits down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Finland next month, it will be a meeting of kindred spirits, and that’s a problem.
That’s a big problem:
One would think that at a tête-à-tête with the Russian autocrat, the president of the United States would take on some of the major concerns of America and its closest allies. Say, for instance, Mr. Putin’s seizure of Crimea and attack on Ukraine, which led to punishing international sanctions. But at the Group of 7 meeting in Quebec this month, Mr. Trump reportedly told his fellow heads of state that Crimea is Russian because everyone there speaks that language. And, of course, Trump aides talked to Russian officials about lifting some sanctions even before he took office.
One would hope that the president of the United States would let Mr. Putin know that he faces a united front of Mr. Trump and his fellow NATO leaders, with whom he would have met days before the summit in Helsinki. But Axios reported that during the meeting in Quebec, Mr. Trump said, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is one of Mr. Trump’s favorite boogeymen…
More likely, Mr. Trump will congratulate Mr. Putin, once again, for winning another term in a sham election, as he did in March, even though his aides explicitly warned him not to. And he has already proposed readmitting Russia to the Group of 7, from which it was ousted after the Ukraine invasion.
None of this makes sense, but Trump may be winging it here:
Summits once tended to be carefully scripted, and presidents were attended by senior advisers and American interpreters. At dinner during a Group of 20 meeting last July, Mr. Trump walked over to Mr. Putin and had a casual conversation with no other American representative present. He later said they discussed adoptions – the same issue that he falsely claimed was the subject of a meeting at Trump Tower in 2016 between his representatives and Russian operatives who said they had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Putin may have told Trump what to say that his son should say about that meeting in Trump Tower where his son was so eager to find out what dirt on Hillary the Russians could actually provide to the Trump campaign. Trump dictated the statement that his son should read, and did, a few hours after that sidebar with Putin. “Here’s what your son should say. Take notes.”
That’s speculation, but this isn’t:
It’s clear that Mr. Trump isn’t a conventional president, but instead intent on eroding institutions that undergird democracy and peace. Mr. Trump “doesn’t believe that the U.S. should be part of any alliance at all” and believes that “permanent destabilization creates American advantage,” according to unnamed administration officials quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic.
Perhaps so, but permanent destabilization may do something else instead:
The tensions Mr. Trump has sharpened with our allies should please Mr. Putin, whose goal is to fracture the West and assert Russian influence in places where the Americans and Europeans have played big roles, like the Middle East, the Balkans and the Baltic States.
Yet despite growing anxieties among European allies, Mr. Trump is relying on his advisers less than ever because, “He now thinks he’s mastered this,” one senior member of Congress said in an interview.
That’s a chilling thought given his inability, so far, to show serious progress on any major security issue. Despite Mr. Trump’s talk of quick denuclearization after his headline-grabbing meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, experts say satellite imagery shows the North is actually improving its nuclear capability.
It may be that Trump doesn’t get it:
Mr. Trump’s top national security advisers are more clear-eyed about the Russian threat than he is. So are the Republicans who control the Senate. They have more responsibility than ever to try to persuade Mr. Trump that the country’s security is at stake when he meets Mr. Putin, and that he should prepare carefully for the encounter.
The Republicans who control the Senate may have more responsibility than ever now, to stop this nonsense, but responsibility isn’t power. Trump really can do whatever he wants. Jonathan Masters, of the Council on Foreign Relations, offers a backgrounder on who is in charge here:
The U.S. Constitution parcels out foreign relations powers to both the executive and legislative branches. It grants some powers, like command of the military, exclusively to the president and others, like the regulation of foreign commerce, to Congress, while still others it divides among the two or simply does not assign.
The separation of powers has spawned a great deal of debate over the roles of the president and Congress in foreign affairs, as well as over the limits on their respective authorities…
Foreign policy experts say that presidents have accumulated power at the expense of Congress in recent years as part of a pattern in which, during times of war or national emergency, the executive branch tends to eclipse the legislature.
But none of this was ever clear:
The periodic tug-of-war between the president and Congress over foreign policy is not a by-product of the Constitution, but rather, one of its core aims. The drafters distributed political power and imposed checks and balances to ward off monarchical tyranny embodied by Britain’s King George III. They also sought to remedy the failings of the Articles of Confederation, the national charter adopted in 1777, which many regarded as a form of legislative tyranny. “If there is a principle in our Constitution, indeed in any free Constitution, more sacred than any other, it is that which separates the legislative, executive, and judicial powers,” wrote James Madison, U.S. representative from Virginia, in the Federalist papers.
Many scholars say there is much friction over foreign affairs because the Constitution is especially obscure in this area. There is not the intrinsic division of labor between the two political branches that there is with domestic affairs, they say. And because the judiciary, the third branch, has generally been reluctant to provide much clarity on these questions, constitutional scuffles over foreign policy are likely to endure.
In short, no one is in charge here, so by default, the president might as well be in charge here, and the president is Donald Trump at the moment. He can do what he wants.
Maybe he shouldn’t do what he wants. Jennifer Rubin notes this:
It’s frankly not clear why Trump is having a summit with Putin at all. National security adviser John Bolton was quick to point out that it sure wasn’t his idea. “President Trump believes so strongly that it was time to have this kind of meeting and as you can see, President Putin agreed,” Bolton told the media. Indeed, Trump’s eagerness to meet with Putin has only reinforced suspicions that he will be eager to make concessions to Putin out of the desire to stay in the Kremlin’s good graces.
That may be all that is going on here:
“I have no idea why this summit is needed,” says former FBI special agent Clint Watts. “Trump’s meeting with Putin legitimizes Russian interference amongst Americans. Trump thinks he’s a deal maker, but his overconfidence leads him to be manipulated by Putin. He carries Putin’s message back to Trump supporters and they (Americans) then degrade US institutions with Putin’s narratives.”
Others agree. “If Trump follows through on his moves to yield to Russia, praise Putin, and pull punches on Russia’s destabilizing behavior, historians in the future could look at this the way they see Neville Chamberlain’s meeting in Munich in 1938 – a naïve effort to placate an adversary who has been chipping away at the international system and core human values,” says Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress.
“Russia has undercut the international system and basic norms for years now. It has interfered in democracies like America with the goal of sowing discord and producing more pliant leaders like Trump. It invaded and annexed Ukraine; it murders opponents at home and overseas; it uses dangerous chemical weapons in places like Britain; and it has slaughtered Syrian civilians in bombings of hospitals.” And yet, Katulis notes, “Trump has been curiously reluctant to criticize let alone do much to counter and constrain Russia in any meaningful way.”
Rubin maintains that this president shouldn’t be in charge of such things:
Whatever the motive for his scraping and bowing, Trump certainly does not inspire confidence that he will resist the empty promises and saccharine-sweet praise that dictators offer him, especially after his performance at the Singapore summit, where he delivered to Kim Jong-Un more than the North Korean leader could have ever hoped (e.g. stature, cessation of South Korea-U.S. military exercises) in exchange for nothing. (Now there is evidence that North Korea is upgrading one of its nuclear facilities.) If Trump gave up all that to Kim, goodness knows what goodies he will lavish on Putin…
If Trump really were a Russian asset, it’s hard to think what else he could do to rupture the Western alliance, diminish U.S. influence, undercut democratic government and human rights, boost Russia’s leverage in the Middle East and give Putin a green light to manipulate our elections with impunity.
That green light might be a green light to manipulate the upcoming midterm elections, but that too is speculation.
Josh Rogin does not deal in speculation:
During a private meeting at the White House in late April, Trump was discussing trade with French President Emmanuel Macron. At one point, he asked Macron, “Why don’t you leave the EU?” and said that if France exited the union, Trump would offer it a bilateral trade deal with better terms than the EU as a whole gets from the United States, according to two European officials. The White House did not dispute the officials’ account, but declined to comment.
Let’s set aside for a moment the point that Trump’s proposal reveals a basic lack of understanding of Macron’s views and those of the people who elected him. This is an instance of the president of the United States offering an incentive to dismantle an organization of America’s allies, against stated US government policy.
There’s nothing hidden here:
Trump has been publicly trashing the EU and NATO since his campaign, but the pace and viciousness of his attacks has increased. Just this week, at a rally in North Dakota, Trump said: “The European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank.” He then complained about a $150 billion trade deficit with the EU, inflating the figure.
Other reports note that Trump recently told Group of Seven leaders that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” suggested to the Swedish prime minister that America should leave the NATO alliance and launched gratuitous public attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel at her weakest moment. It’s a deepening trend that leads to an unavoidable conclusion: Trump doesn’t believe in the continued sanctity of the European Union and NATO, as well as the United States’ commitment to both.
Trump defenders often say he is simply throwing out ideas to see what sticks. Some say his motives are primarily political and domestic – or that he is more talk than action. Many cling to the hope that the president’s top diplomatic and military officials can still execute sound policy, reassure allies, manage Trump and head off any real catastrophe.
That was plausible during Trump’s first year in office, and European allies were relatively reassured. But during his second year, so far, Trump has shrugged off previous constraints. His new national security team can only try to tamp down fears and attempt to merge Trump’s “America First” mantra with a responsible strategy.
That’s why out allies are worried about Helsinki:
European officials no longer believe Trump’s words can be discounted. They don’t see the alliance rift as routine or temporary. They don’t believe it’s possible to repair the transatlantic bridge in the middle of a Trump-sized earthquake. European countries have no choice but to hedge and seek alternatives to U.S. leadership.
“If you look at the world today, you realize the position of the West is going to be contested for the first time in several centuries,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told me. “And if the West if is disunited, it’s going to be much less capable of withstanding that challenge.”
If Europe doesn’t feel the United States is really on its side, the risk is that individual European nations turn to other geopolitical forces, and this is bad for America, Blair added.
Trump’s best friend knows that:
“As long as there is a unified Europe that maintains a liberal international order with basic rules of the road, it is a disaster for a dictator like Putin,” former vice president Joe Biden told me. “That’s why Putin is doing what he’s doing.”
Rogin sees this:
Trump is doing enormous and unnecessary damage. His intentional and egregious actions to undermine the EU, NATO and the United States’ relationship with both can no longer be discounted, rationalized or seen as anything but what they are – a brazen attempt to undo the strategic infrastructure both America and Europe need more than ever.
Robin Wright sees this:
The US-Russia summit will follow Trump’s meeting with the twenty-nine members of NATO, in Brussels, also at a time of deep tensions within the world’s most powerful military alliance. The issue is not just the President’s demand that other members ante up more money for NATO. There are growing questions about NATO’s mission. It was created in 1949, to confront and contain Moscow’s influence. It has held together since the Cold War ended, in 1991, because of the Balkan wars in the nineteen-nineties and Afghanistan, NATO’s first deployment outside Europe since the September 11th attacks. Under Putin, Russia has continued to be aggressive – seizing Crimea from the Ukraine, intervening militarily in Syria’s civil war, and unnerving the neighboring Baltic States – none of which has noticeably bothered President Trump…
“One thing that is really kind of crazy is Trump’s idea that he can do better on his own, that Putin will have more respect for him if Trump has destroyed the very institutions that give America power – like NATO and the G7,” Stephen Sestanovich, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former US Ambassador-at-Large to the former Soviet states, told me. “Trump is going to NATO, and beat up on the Europeans for not spending enough. Spending for what? Confronting the Russians? Someone needs to connect the dots for the President.”
But this president doesn’t see dots:
Trump may see the summit itself as the biggest deliverable, Michael McFaul, another former US Ambassador to Russia, told me. “That’s a mistake,” McFaul said. Putin will use the summit to rehabilitate his image after annexing Crimea, in 2014, intervening militarily in Syria, in 2015, and interfering in the US election, in 2016. “What American national interest will be advanced by this meeting? I don’t see any. I hope I’m wrong.” What’s more, he added, “I fear Trump will shower Putin with praise the same way he did with Kim Jong-Un,” McFaul said. “That would be a huge victory for Putin.”
Putin comes out ahead simply by holding the long-anticipated summit. “Putin’s position going into that meeting is stronger than in many years,” Nina Khrushcheva, the granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and a long-standing Putin critic, told me. “He’s stroked Trump’s ego so many times – and masterfully. The bigger question is what happens when they come out happy: How does that play out? And how will the political situation in the United States reconcile with Russia?”
Those questions cannot be answered. Trump is making this up as he goes along, and Politico notes this:
President Donald Trump’s wing-it approach to diplomacy would face a tough test in a potential July summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is sure to bring a well-rehearsed game plan to a meeting with his impulsive American counterpart.
“Putin comes extremely well prepared for these meetings,” said Michael McFaul, a Trump critic who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia during President Barack Obama’s second term. “He knows what he is seeking to achieve. He does psychological work ahead of time to think about the strengths and weaknesses of the people he’s talking to.”
The former KGB spy is known as an incisive negotiator who has an uncanny ability to read people. Putin likely understands that when it comes to Trump, the fourth American president since Putin’s ascension as Russia’s top leader, flattery pays off – and that Trump, as recent events show, can be persuaded to agree to things that fly in the face of his advisers’ counsel.
At least one side will be prepared:
Putin’s agenda for the potential summit is clear, according to experts. For Putin, the best outcome of the summit is a tacit – or even explicit – endorsement from the American president on par with the praise Trump heaped on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un after this month’s summit in Singapore.
Such global recognition could help Putin toward some of his longer-term goals, including the recognition that Russia was right to annex a portion of Ukraine in 2014, a commitment to respect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule in Syria, or even a pledge to end the expansion of NATO, the North American-European military alliance that serves as a counterweight to Russian aggression.
And Trump has already endorsed another long-term Putin goal – readmission into the G7 – a group of major world economic powers that banished Russia over its intervention in Ukraine.
This is all good for Putin, while we have this:
While U.S. officials have their own list of demands – among them, assistance with fighting terrorists in Syria and obtaining a pledge that Moscow won’t meddle in the 2018 midterm elections – there’s no way of knowing what Trump will say once he gets in the room. Trump has thrown observers for a loop each time he talks about Putin, vowing on one occasion that he accepted the Russian leader’s belief that the Kremlin didn’t interfere in the 2016 election and even drawing widespread dismay and mockery for suggesting a possible joint U.S.-Russia cybersecurity unit to protect elections.
Trump’s unpredictability has administration officials and outside observers worried.
“I think the assumption is that Trump will go off script. What we’ve learned with his recent summit in Singapore is that he loves the focus and attention that comes with this kind of high-stakes summit,” William Pomeranz, a Russia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said. “There is always a risk that Trump promises something that his advisers don’t want him to put on the table.”
But he can do that. He’s in charge. The intentional ambiguity in the Constitution made that possible. The intentional ambiguity in the Constitution may upend the world now. Finland is fine. Everyone should visit Helsinki. Donald Trump probably shouldn’t, but he will. Putin knows that flattery pays off. All things end in Helsinki.