In a Trump-Putin meeting, who gets the show, and who gets the substance?
After the Singapore show put on by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, we might now be heading for an encore performance starring Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And looking at what happened in Singapore, many Europeans are distinctly nervous.
Not that the Europeans aren’t supportive of what Trump is trying to do with North Korea. Indeed, their support in the UN Security Council has been instrumental in taking his policy of “maximum pressure” from rhetoric to reality. Sometimes friends can be useful.
But the Trump-Kim summit filled many with a certain anxiety. Few believed the North Korean leader would hand in his nuclear weapons when he checked into the hotel in Singapore. A long, difficult and uncertain diplomatic process was the best one could hope for, a certainly far better than the alternative. Whether Pyongyang will give up its nuclear capabilities in the foreseeable future remains an open question.
But Trump is now seeking a quick summit with Putin, and there is a genuine worry in the chancelleries of Europe that it would result in the one leader getting the show, and the other getting the substance.
Europeans certainly see both the logic and necessity of sitting down with the leader of Russia for a hard-nosed dialogue on issues of strategic stability, aggression on Ukraine and the horrors of Syria. They do it themselves on a regular basis.
If Trump uses the Singapore script, it would be genuinely worrying. We might hear that Putin is a man loved by the people of Russia, that he can genuinely be trusted, that the two leaders will build a terrific relationship and that happy days are ahead of us. The president might even throw in that there are some good beaches where some good condos could be built. Human rights? Well, it’s rough in many places around the world.
And Russia, we should note, has nukes. This, you should also note, is in contrast to weak and untrustworthy places such as Canada, in Trump’s view.
Crimea? That’s not Putin’s fault; it’s another of those many things that President Barack Obama messed up. And they all speak Russian, he has been told. As they do in Belarus and large parts of Kazakhstan, as well.
If Trump follows the Singapore script, it would be obvious that NATO military exercises in Europe are “provocative” and should be ended. The US taxpayers would save some cash. And the Germans should stop selling cars and focus on tanks instead.
Putin is a shrewd operator. He will throw in some lines about how Trump is a great leader, that sovereign nations have the right to do what they please, as well as on the necessity of controlling borders. He will point out that they speak Russian in Crimea and that, by the way, they have great beaches.
Hopefully, this nightmare scenario will never come true. There are real issues that should be addressed. The United States should follow through on supporting the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty through a real UN transitional administration in the eastern region Donbas, and it should not concede to the aggression on Crimea; it should also stand firm on a real peace process and genuine transition in Syria; it should also open up for a dialogue on strategic stability that could pave the way for further reductions of nuclear weapons; and it should stand firm on its commitments to NATO and its member states.
Hopefully, a summit between the president of Russia and the president of the United States will aim to defend the interest and the values of the West.
But, these days, who knows? Europe is surely nervous.
Carl Bildt is the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.
This article originally appeared on 27 June in The Washington Post.