Russia-US Summit: Not Only Russians Are the Slow Starters

3 july 2018

Andrey Bystritskiy - Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Professor, Dean of the Faculty of Communications, Media and Design at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, member of the Union of Writers.

Resume: Not only the Russians are the slow starters who drive fast. It appears that this is true of the Americans as well. In any case, one can’t help getting this impression amid the flurry of reports about the upcoming summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Of course, we can only speculate on its outcomes until it actually takes place.

That said, some things can be presumed with a high degree of probability. First, the meeting will actually take place. This in itself is a lot, as expectations – both negative and positive – for this meeting are running high. That is, this meeting is symbolic, and symbols are important, because they structure the world in which we operate. No one has torn up the rules of symbolic communication yet. Second, and this follows from the first, there are good reasons to hold this meeting. It will take place in relatively new circumstances and may lead to interesting and promising results.

It is banal to state that the world is changing dramatically, but no less true. Much is changing, and it’s there for everyone to see. The union of Western countries is transforming right before our eyes. It is far from a coincidence that the meeting will take place in the wake of a fairly important NATO summit and heated debates on migration in the EU. Even at the most recent G7 meeting, which can hardly be called a show of unity of its member countries, Trump (not for the first time) mentioned the upside of Russia rejoining this informal organization. Even though this statement was not met with stormy applause, the reaction laid bare the lack of unity among the G7 countries on this matter. Trump noted that the G7 devoted 25% of its discussion time to Russia, and reasoned that it would make more sense to talk with Russia directly to discuss disagreements.

The announcement of the upcoming meeting unleashed a predictably wild reaction. The Times wrote about mounting fears over possible outcomes of the meeting, and Donald Tusk called on the EU to brace itself for difficult times as Trump, according to the EU president, was undermining Euro-Atlantic unity. However, many European and US media responded with more restraint, believing there’s no need to put the cart before the horse, and that a wiser approach would be to await the outcome, which could be quite positive. Interestingly, while calling for improved defense capabilities, Angela Merkel stressed that dialogue with Russia is necessary.

In all likelihood, the timing of the meeting is not accidental. Above all, because many of the most pressing sources of contention in the modern world desperately need to be addressed. They include non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, the migration crisis, turbulence in the Middle East, and the overall need to improve regulation of our highly interdependent world. A direct dialogue between countries such as Russia and the United States could be very useful. For many reasons, Russia has managed to occupy a unique position in today’s world. And it so happens that it will be difficult to build a new stable configuration of the modern world without Russia. The United States, one of the world's leading players, will benefit from reaching an understanding with Russia and thus create an important new construct for the new international order.

It is also important that no one will be able to build a united front to oppose improving relations between the two countries. Europe, and therefore the European Union, is locked in a dispute over migrants which is unlikely to be ever resolved. Interestingly, the split over this issue does not quite coincide with the split over relations with Russia. Italy, for example, is clearly willing to improve relations with Russia, unlike Poland, which is reluctant to meet Italy on the refugee issue. Even though the EU summit in June resulted in a series of palliative measures, the migration crisis itself is far from being solved. In addition to the Russia issue, NATO is deeply divided over military spending and the collective responsibility of its members. One way or another, the United States under Trump, not shying away from disputes or disagreements with its allies, is clearly trying to reclaim NATO leadership, the funding of which rests mainly on US shoulders. Actually, the message is simple: since America bears the brunt of funding, Washington should have a commensurate role in decision-making.

Incidentally, this is a reason why the proposed meeting will not necessarily split NATO or the European Union. It may, ironically, help to achieve a new consensus on many issues, including European security. You fight fire with fire, after all. Entangled in numerous controversies, many European leaders may opt for a path of simplifying the situation and overcoming certain differences at the expense of others. So even here the Putin-Trump summit may send a meaningful message.

The atmosphere has changed in the United States as well. Observing this process, I can’t help getting an impression that the American elite, in general, has reconciled itself to Trump. He has clearly scored many points with his successful Korean diplomacy and his fairly tough, in fact, protectionist policies that even his closest allies are not exempt from. In any case, his support in the US is quite substantial and growing. Republicans are clearly rallying around Trump. These changes, by the way, have taken place right before our eyes literally over the past few months.

Trump lives up to the expectations of his base of voters by consistently honouring his campaign promises, despite the considerable resistance of a portion of the American elite. But, I repeat, this resistance is weakening, which allows Trump to confidently carry out his duties as president and actually pave the way to re-election. Many American media, even CNN, admit that Trump is successful and trying to act decisively, finding himself at a crossroads of history development of both the United States and the world in general.

It is no secret that Russia is also seeking to improve relations with the United States, as has been repeatedly acknowledged by the Russian president and other leading politicians in this country. Improvement is possible in many areas, such as the Middle East and Syria, where Russian and American military are cooperating quite successfully without, at least, direct conflicts or clashes.

According to the Kremlin press service, the meeting will be used to once again drive home the point that Russia did not interfere in the US presidential campaign. This is important not only for Russia-US relations, but international affairs more broadly. The fact is that the latest information and communication technology can easily overcome borders and language barriers, with billions of people around the world engaged in the occasionally chaotic exchange of often unverified or simply false information. And this exchange and its impact on public opinion and political behavior need regulation, including at the international level. If you will, the world needs rules for reciprocal and, under the present circumstances, often inevitable interference.

Curiously, despite disagreements among elites, Russian and American citizens are working together quite successfully to find a common language in many fairly important spheres ranging from medicine to space exploration.

So the summit may be quite interesting and promising, although not simple, primarily because both Russia and the US are clearly striving to put relations on a rational footing and to establish direct dialogue on the most pressing matters. The fact is that the emerging new world order requires drastic rethinking, doing away with phantom pains and understanding the real challenges to international security and ways to deal with them.

The potential of this meeting should not be underestimated, in my opinion. In the end, these are the leaders of the world’s best armed countries, possessing lethal nuclear and new-generation weapons. Seen from this angle, the upcoming meeting is already important. It not only lowers the risk of possible clashes, which many pundits like to talk about, but also sends a fairly important message, a call for restraint to many countries, the elites of which are sometimes prone to issuing careless – and so even more dangerous – threats.

Finally, it is difficult to predict any concrete outcomes of the meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States. Clearly, it will not be a walk in the park. There are many pressing issues and points of disagreement. However, what I’m sure of is that it will be highly consequential, not just for Russia and the United States, but for the entire world. Symbols matter.

The Valdai Discussion Club

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