Predictably enough, the prospect of a Reykjavik summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – floated in the London Times, then denied by incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer – is arousing much dismay in Europe. Will Trump abandon Ukraine in return for more cooperation in Syria (or simply indeterminate promises of warmer relations)? Will Putin use the opportunity to spring some new surprise and try and distance the USA from Europe? The downsides are numerous and evident. However, there are less obvious grounds to welcome such a meeting – and to want it to happen as quickly as possible. To put it bluntly, let them meet and fail.
How to Make Friends and Influence People
The original 1986 Reykjavik Summit saw President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev get close to an historic accord on reducing nuclear stockpiles. Trump is no Reagan (except perhaps in his disengagement from the minutiae of administration) and Putin is certainly no Gorbachev. But it is for precisely this reason that a meeting could prove to be a windfall for Europe.
For Putin, Trump’s greatest virtue at present is likely that he is not Hillary Clinton, whom the Kremlin regards as an avowed enemy. It is harder to know quite what Putin represents for Trump, whether a potential ally against China, or simply a model of a tough, macho chief executive with whom he can do business.
But when they meet, it will be as people, not concepts. And it is unlikely that the current love-fest will survive prolonged contact unscathed. Both men regard themselves as alpha male leaders and are prone to try to assert their dominance. Putin notoriously keeps his interlocutors waiting, while Trump likes to hold the floor in meetings. Neither is used to, or appreciates, rivals.
At the same time, Putin is known for his meticulous mastery of detail in summits, and prizes seriousness and professionalism in his interlocutors. Trump, on the other hand, appears to rely on spur of the moment declarations, which he often disowns later. This may well fall foul of one of Putin’s pet hates: his belief – right or not – that the West is duplicitous and hypocritical.
In other words, the long-distance bromance may founder when its principals actually get to meet. Will Putin feel Trump too lightweight to take seriously? Will Trump feel Putin does not show him adequate respect?
The Art of the Deal
A summit will also force both sides to show their hands. And there are reasons to doubt whether either side can offer the other something worthwhile and deliverable.
Trump has suggested that some sanctions might be lifted in return for cooperation over nuclear weapons and Islamic State. But Putin's ambitions are much greater. Lurid claims in the so-called “Trump Dossier” notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the Kremlin truly thinks it can control the president of the United States. But it is clear enough what Putin is after: a new Yalta that legitimises Russia’s dominance in Eastern Europe, a recognition of its annexation of Crimea, and the lifting of all sanctions.
For his part, Putin has yet to make any meaningful counter-offer beyond a hint at the lifting of retaliatory food sanctions, that would in any case largely affect Europe. And the truth is that Russia has very little to offer America but negatives. It can promise to stop interfering in elections in Europe, but that hardly matters to this most parochial of presidents. It can be less of an obstacle to US policy in the Middle East, or halt potentially problematic initiatives such as supporting Libya’s rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar.
But Moscow cannot afford to become Washington’s ally or proxy in any geopolitical or economic rivalry with Beijing. It shares too long a border with China and needs its trade and investment too much. For much the same reason, nor can it scale back its nuclear forces substantially, as their real role is increasingly as a guarantee against a resurgent future China.
Bring it on
The next few years will likely be turbulent and uncomfortable ones. Trump’s apparent unconcern for Russian interference in Ukraine and beyond, his enthusiasm for “America first” policies and tariff barriers, and his bad-tempered rift with his own intelligence community (and their apparent willingness to brief against him) all would appear to empower those in Moscow who see aggression paying off. But all challenges are manageable. And the current cloud of assumption, expectation, rumour and hype surrounding the Trump presidency does Europe no good at all.
So let the realities of the Trump-Putin relationships be tested as soon as possible. If Russia fails to play its assigned role in the presidential reality show, if Putin fails to make a human connection with him, if Trump comes to see Moscow as a problem rather than a potential partner, then the Kremlin could well come to regret whatever part it played in his election.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.