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Rediscovering the Art of Diplomacy With Vladimir Putin

The United States has enjoyed many advantages over the decades because of its superpower status. As the principal architect of the post-World War II liberal international order, Washington has secured disproportionate security and economic benefits for itself. America’s overwhelming military capabilities have magnified that clout in global affairs. Allies and adversaries alike might grumble at Washington’s preeminence, but they have been prudent enough to avoid direct challenges whenever possible. Even the Soviet Union confined itself (with the notable exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis) to probes in marginal, mostly Third World, arenas.

However, Washington’s dominant position has also led to some foreign policy bad habits. Because U.S. leaders have not had to deal with serious peer competitors in a long time, they appear to have lost the art of skillful, nuanced diplomacy. Even before the arrival of the Trump administration, U.S. policy exhibited a growing arrogance and lack of realism about diplomatic objectives. The upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin affords an opportunity to relearn the requirements of effective diplomacy. If handled poorly, though, it will underscore the adverse consequences of Washington’s rigid approach to world affairs.

Too many American politicians, pundits, and foreign policy operatives seem to believe that when dealing with an adversary, diplomacy should consist of issuing a laundry list of demands, including manifestly unrealistic ones, without offering even a hint of meaningful concessions. Critics of Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un epitomized that attitude. Some of them excoriated the president just for his willingness to accord Kim implicit equal status by approving a bilateral meeting. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi groused [1] that President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo.”

Others grudgingly conceded that the summit theoretically might have been an appropriate move, but argued that Washington should have demanded major substantive and irreversible North Korean steps toward denuclearization in exchange for such a prestigious meeting. In other words, they wanted North Korea’s capitulation on the central issue before Trump even agreed to a summit. Critics were furious that such a capitulation was not at least enshrined in the joint statement emerging from the meeting. And if that hardline stance was not enough, they insisted that Trump should have made North Korea’s human rights record a feature of the negotiations. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asserted [2] that “our wrongful indifference to human rights in the past should not be used as an excuse to justify apologias for dictatorships in our time.”

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The lack of realism such positions exhibit is breathtaking. If the hardliners had prevailed, no summit would have taken place. Their demands were multiple poison pills to any feasible negotiations. And the consequences flowing from the course they favored would have been the perpetuation, if not escalation, of alarming tensions on the Korean Peninsula. By spurning their advice, Trump secured a worthwhile change in the dynamics of the U.S.-North Korean relationship. The rapprochement may yet falter, since there are still extremely serious disagreements between the two countries, but the summit was a beneficial reset that has reduced the danger of a catastrophic military confrontation. Because he focused on the achievable, Trump secured a modest, but constructive, gain both for the United States and the East Asian region.

The president has an opportunity for an even more important success in his upcoming summit with Putin. But even more than he did with North Korea, he needs to make major changes in current U.S. policy toward Russia and reject the advice and demands that Russophobic hardliners are pushing. Once again, the president must distinguish between achievable and unachievable goals. And he must be willing to make meaningful concessions to the Russian leader to secure the former.

Some of Washington’s existing demands are manifestly unrealistic [3]. Russia is not going to reverse its annexation of Crimea and return that territory to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s move was at least partly a response to the clumsy and provocative actions [4] that the United States and key European Union powers took to support demonstrators who unseated Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, before the expiration of his term. Moscow was not about to accept that Western power play and watch the region containing Russia’s main naval base come under the control of a manifestly hostile Ukrainian regime. Given the stakes involved, Russia is no more likely to withdraw from Crimea than Israel is likely to return the Golan Heights to Syria or Turkey return occupied northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus. Persisting in an utterly unattainable demand regarding Crimea before U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia will be lifted is pointless.

Inducing the Kremlin to reduce and phase out its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine is more achievable. Indeed, despite the hysterical allegations [5] that appear periodically in the Western press, Russia’s backing of the insurgents has been quite limited and is far less than constituting an “invasion.” Putin shows little stomach for making Ukraine an arena for a full-fledged confrontation with the West.

A similar situation exists with respect to Syria. The Kremlin clearly wishes to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power, and given the extreme Islamist orientation of many of Assad’s opponents, that is not an outrageous position. Nevertheless, Putin has avoided establishing a large-scale Russian military, especially ground force, presence in that country. He apparently wishes to confine Moscow’s role to protecting its naval base at Tartus and assisting Assad’s military efforts with Russian air power [6]. There appears to be an opportunity for Washington to gain assurances from the Kremlin that its involvement in Syria will not escalate and might even recede gradually.

To secure such goals, though, the U.S. would need to offer some appealing concessions to Putin. In exchange for ending Russian support of Ukrainian secessionists and confirming Moscow’s toleration of the anti-Russian regime in Kiev, Trump should be willing to sign an agreement pledging that the United States will neither propose not endorse NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia [7]. NATO’s previous waves of enlargement right up to Russia’s border were a key factor [8] in the deterioration of the West’s relations with Moscow. It is time to end that provocation. In addition to that concession, Trump should pledge that NATO military exercises (war games) in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea will come to an end. In exchange, the United States ought to insist that Russian forces end their provocative deployments in Kaliningrad and along Russia’s frontier with NATO members.

With regard to Syria, Trump should inform Putin that the United States is ceasing its efforts to unseat Assad—a venture that has been a disaster, in any case. To reinforce that pledge, the United States should offer to withdraw all of its forces over the next year. Those moves would tacitly accept Russia as the leading foreign power in terms of influence in Syria. Such a concession is a simple recognition of reality [9]. Syria is barely 600 miles from Russia’s border; it is 6,000 miles from the American homeland. Moscow’s interests are understandably more central than America’s, given that geographic factor alone.

In conducting serious negotiations with Putin, President Trump has an opportunity for a diplomatic (and public relations) success that would exceed his achievement with the Kim summit. To do so, however, he must make a major course correction in how the United States handles delicate and dangerous situations with adversaries. Indeed, he must take an important step in America’s willingness to relearn the techniques of achievable diplomacy.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Rediscovering the Art of Diplomacy With Vladimir Putin"

#1 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On July 9, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

With regard to Syria, Trump should inform Putin that the United States is ceasing its efforts to unseat Assad

Better check with Jerusalem and Riyadh first. Otherwise there will be no checks for US politicians and that will be a disaster for democracy.

#2 Comment By Lenny On July 9, 2018 @ 11:07 pm

I am confident that Trump will outdo Chamberlain

Bigly

#3 Comment By Clyde Schechter On July 10, 2018 @ 12:23 am

All of these proposals are eminently reasonable and sensible. But there is only faint hope that Trump would undertake any of them. While his summit with Kim Jong-un has, at least for now, reduced tensions in the US-DPRK relationship, elsewhere in the world his actions have been erratic and tended towards belligerence and escalation. Moreover, even if his instincts are good, he has surrounded himself with fanatic war-mongers Bolton and Pompeo, and also influenced by Senator Graham. To the extent there is a pattern to his foreign interactions, it is far closer to the belligerence and ultimatums the author rightly decries, then to the author’s laudable preferences.

#4 Comment By JEinCA On July 10, 2018 @ 4:53 am

A Putin-Trump summit will be historic but what can it really achieve except for “possibly” a very brief detente that will last at most to 2025 if Trump returns to office in 2021?

The real powers that be in the West will not accept anything short of Moscow’s complete submission to it’s will. Will Putin sell out Russia’s Orthodox kinsmen in the Donbass for some meaningless agreement with Washington that most likely will not last past this Trump administration? I sure as hell hope not. Too much blood has been spilled for such an agreement with a party that will assuredly break it in the near future. Orthodox nations and peoples must come to realize that there is us and there is everyone else. We must take care of and safeguard our own first and foremost. The rest of the world must know that we will never sell out our own no matter what they have to offer us. All Orthodox peoples must stand together in unity for we are collectively the Body of Christ and let us never forget that. The World is not our friend and never will be.

#5 Comment By Whine Merchant On July 10, 2018 @ 7:38 am

“Once again, the president must distinguish between achievable and unachievable goals. And he must be willing to make meaningful concessions to the Russian leader to secure the former.”

er, um…have you seen just who is in the White House, and you use the words “achievable goals” and “concessions”??

#6 Comment By spite On July 10, 2018 @ 8:36 am

If one takes a look from the opposite side, why on earth would Russia (or any other non US puppet) want to negotiate with the USA? The USA has shown that every promise, in formal writing or not, has zero value as it ends up breaking all of them (and by all I really mean ALL).

#7 Comment By Michael Kenny On July 10, 2018 @ 8:59 am

All of this is just common sense but that’s what’s wrong with it. It is such obvious common sense, why didn’t Putin agree to it years ago? The Ukrainian deal has been on the table from day one: Putin allows Ukraine to re-assert its sovereignty in Donetsk and Lugansk and, in return, some classic European fudge is come up with allowing him to keep Crimea. Putin could have had all of this at any time in the last four years. Instead of that, he has stonewalled and refused to negotiate. Clearly, he believes that if he holds out long enough, his American supporters will serve him up all he wants (which clearly is more than he now has) on a silver platter without his having to make any concession whatsoever in return for it. Any concession on Trump’s part will fuel Russiagate. Any concession on Putin’s part will be an admission of defeat, both of himself and of his American supporters. Thus, there are really only two possible outcomes to this summit. Either Trump capitulates to Putin, which will probably destroy him politically or Putin capitulates to Trump, which will probably destroy him politically. If Trump had any political savvy, he have saved the summit with Kim for an “October surprise” and left Putin on the back burner until after the election.

#8 Comment By Phil On July 10, 2018 @ 9:07 am

Just what are the “constructive results” of the Singapore summit? What is Trump’s achievement here?

Other than a lot of premature celebration, there isn’t anything to talk about.

This reminds me of people falling over each other to congratulate Obama for the Cairo speech, when it was all empty words. It’s the same here. The administration has made a bunch of vague claims about what Kim might agree to, and there are rumblings from Pyeongyang that suggest they might not have agreed to anything after all.

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 10, 2018 @ 10:26 am

Mr. Carpenter: This section of your essay is especially brilliant and important for improving US relations with Russia:

“NATO’s previous waves of enlargement right up to Russia’s border were a key factor in the deterioration of the West’s relations with Moscow. It is time to end that provocation.”

It certainly is!

If I understand you correctly, Mr. Carpenter, “end[ing] that provocation]” would mean ending the NATO membership for nations “right up to Russia’s border.”

You continue: “In addition to that concession, Trump should pledge that NATO military exercises (war games) in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea will come to an end.”

But then, Mr. Carpenter, you say that “in exchange, the United States ought to insist that Russian forces end their provocative deployments in Kaliningrad…” – a completely reasonable US demand – “…and along Russia’s frontier with NATO members.”

I’m confused. Don’t you mean “along Russia’s frontier with FORMER NATO members”? If you mean that Russia would remove it military deployments along its borders with nations that ARE NO LONGER IN NATO, that would be a completely reasonable demand. Is that what you mean?

#10 Comment By Lenny (not Lenny Bruce) On July 10, 2018 @ 12:50 pm

Another well written article detailing why the Strongest country on earth should surrender to the will of the 10th largest economy?

And why is that?

#11 Comment By b. On July 10, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

Larison sees the real opening here – New START – whereas Carpenter does not.

But Trump is even less likely to have his own Reykjavik moment than Obama or Bush or either Clinton are (and neither had the brains of an ailing Reagan, so the bar is already six feet under).

Pity, it would be a spectacle worthy of the Coliseum to see Trump, of all people, rout the biparty warmongers between the existential threat of nuclear weapons and the cost of a new nuclear arms race on the one hand, and their attempted block by “Russia!” hysteria on the other.

But he already broke that promise:

[10]

[11]

The depressing thought is that the only chance this will cost him 2020 is if the issue actually … blows up… by then.

#12 Comment By John S On July 10, 2018 @ 1:38 pm

Is Mr. Carpenter aware that North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons since Trump’s “beneficial reset”?

Let’s be honest. The NK summit was a complete failure. There is zero reason to expect the Putin-Trump summit will be anything less than ten times worse.

#13 Comment By One Guy On July 10, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

If anyone is eager to make “meaningful concessions” to Putin, that person would be Donald Trump. After all, he needs loans from Russian banks, and American ones won’t touch him.

#14 Comment By Sid Finster On July 10, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

@Michael Kenny: Am I hallucinating or did Russia not sponsor the Minsk Summit, after which Ukraine broke its word, and the Minsk 2.0, which agreement Ukraine has not fulfilled and has publicly stated that it has no intention of fulfilling?

While a detente with Russia, even a temporary one, would be a refreshing and unlikely development, Trump has no foreign policy accomplishments to exceed.

#15 Comment By Janek On July 10, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

The talk about D. Trump and V. Putin about defenses, how much everybody should pay or not, on what they will agree or not, USA involvement in Middle East, Europe (Central and Eastern Europe) and elsewhere is just well, talk for the naive and simple. All of that posturing is about Israel, nothing less or nothing more

#16 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On July 10, 2018 @ 4:22 pm

Constructive article, reasonable advice.
It’s a pity that the boxers in the ring do not hear good advice from the audience.
In addition, it is interesting for the public to see the battle, and not handshakes and friendly hugs. The Russian-American political battle has long been a global brand.
The intrigue of the current moment is that negotiations will be held when there is no complete agreement in American society.
The Russian leadership, according to the press secretary of President Putin, realizes this.
Opponents of Donald Trump continue the line started by journalist O’Reilly, who, in an interview with the US president, spoke about Vladimir Putin as a murderer, hinting probably at the fact that someone who shakes the murderer’s hand is himself a bit of a killer. The American senator who visited Russia on the eve of the meeting in Helsinki spoke of the Russian leadership as a Mafia, possibly implying that a pure and noble American politician would never deal with the mafia. Only other mafiosi can communicate with mafiosi, or dishonest businessmen…
[12]
Meanwhile, 90 thousand American tourists came to Russia to the world championship in football, not being afraid to suffer from bandit bullets in the streets of Russian cities. An American woman astronaut is now in space with a Russian cosmonaut and she is not afraid that he can steal her laptop or anything worse.
The previous American astronaut received a medal from President Putin for his flight into space and for some reason did not throw it to the walls of the Kremlin with contempt. Regardless of the outcome, the Presidents’ meeting in Helsinki, the main thing is that oil is rising in price, and something tells me that this was not without the involvement of “dishonest” American businessmen..

#17 Comment By Lyttenburgh On July 10, 2018 @ 6:53 pm

I have only one (1) question here. Did anyone (ANYONE) asked Russians themselves what they expect to be offered from the US in the way of “concessions” (or “pieces of the potential horse trading” if you like)?

Why should Russia be interested in agreeing to reduce its absolutely legal military presence in Kaliningrand in exchange for the “promise” that there *might* be less military exercises by the NATO joint TFs in the Black Sea and Baltics region? The plans to increase the US military footprint in Europe are already afoot, with new brigades already scheduled to take root in their new home away from home – be it Germany or even Poland.

Promise to stop acting as the Crazy Cat Lady by taking more and more strays into the big and friendly NATO is also nonsense. Such promise even in the written form is not worth the paper. So, why should Russians agree to that?

#18 Comment By Jon0815 On July 11, 2018 @ 9:24 am

“Inducing the Kremlin to reduce and phase out its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine is more achievable”

No, it’s not. If Russia were to stop arming the rebels, Kiev would quickly overrun and ethnically cleanse the area, Russia doesn’t want another Krajina on its border.

The best solution would be a UN peacekeeping force along the line of contact, but Ukraine is likely to oppose that more than Russia.

#19 Comment By EugeneGur On July 11, 2018 @ 10:57 am

Nothing will come of this meeting except some little excitement on both sides.

The US has nothing to offer Russia. Trump can’t lift the sanctions even if he wanted to. Crimea is Russian, and whether the US recognizes the fact or not doesn’t change the situation one bit. Syria is a fait accompli regardless of what Trump thinks of it. Russia isn’t going to sell out Iran for the US admitting the obvious.

Similarly, Russia isn’t going to sell out Donbass- there is nothing Trump can offer to offset that, and this is also impossible for domestic reasons.

Putin also isn’t going to accept anyone’s dictate over how Russia deploys its troop on its own territory, particularly in exchange for empty promises – remember, Russia already knows from experience exactly how much they are worth.

The most that could be done is that Putin looks the other way while the US declares victory in Syria and withdraws with honor thereby saving face.

#20 Comment By balconesfault On July 11, 2018 @ 11:46 am

@Clyde Schechter While his summit with Kim Jong-un has, at least for now, reduced tensions in the US-DPRK relationship

Tensions that Trump immediately stoked upon taking the White House …

@JEinCA Orthodox nations and peoples must come to realize that there is us and there is everyone else.

Did this read better in the original Russian than it does to American ears?

@Dr. Diprospan Regardless of the outcome, the Presidents’ meeting in Helsinki, the main thing is that oil is rising in price, and something tells me that this was not without the involvement of “dishonest” American businessmen..

Oil is rising in price because:
(a) the US, which consumes almost twice as much oil (not per capita, but total) than any other country on earth, immediately upon Trumps election moved to start abandoning years of efforts dedicated to reducing our national oil gluttony (ie, rolling back CAFE standards), causing futures markets to anticipate growing demand for oil
(b) Trump tore up the Iran JCPOA – which has the potential to take about 3% of the global oil supply off the market
(c) Russia and OPEC, in mid-2017, significantly cut back oil production in order to combat the low global oil prices.

The only “American businessman” involved in this was the businessman who America elected President in 2016, who is responsible for (a) and (b).

#21 Comment By Mark Thomason On July 11, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

“If the hardliners had prevailed, no summit would have taken place. Their demands were multiple poison pills to any feasible negotiations. And the consequences flowing from the course they favored would have been the perpetuation, if not escalation, of alarming tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”

That is not a flaw. That was the goal.

They don’t really want the war. They want the money. It is always the money.

#22 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On July 11, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

The very best reason for wanting to get along with Russia and Putin is thatthey apparently have a better nuclear arsenal than we do. They have an unmanned sub with a cobalt-laced torpedo that can make the East Coast uninhabitable for generations. They also have a Doomsday Weapon that would ensure America’s destruction even if we were to launch a first strike that decapitated their command centers.

But, hey, John McCain doesn’t want to talk about that!

#23 Comment By Rob On July 11, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

I don’t disagree necessarily with the suggested concession of effectively recognising Crimea’s annexation. But if the argument is that sanctions are basically a signal that annexation of another country’s territory is unacceptable, then I can also see the argument for maintaining. Western hypocrisy on this is rank, no doubt (eg. Kosovo and the fact that Western actions in Ukraine and re Nato expansion were provocative towards Russia) but I suppose lifting the sanctions without Crimea being returned (which is fantasy) does send a message that annexation will be protested by the international community, but not indefinitely.

#24 Comment By Ivo Olavo Castro da Silva On July 12, 2018 @ 11:48 am

“Rediscovering the art of diplomacy”? Putin’s support for separatists in Ukraine was limited? In what galaxy has the author been in 2014? And all those hundreds of immaculate tanks, trucks and artillery without any insignia coming from Russia? And “separatists” firing long range missiles that require four highly trained soldiers to operate it? Appeasement seems to have no limits. How would Americans feel if part of Texas was occupied by Mexican illegal immigrants proclaiming that the territory is no longer the United States, and all public buildings were flying the Mexican flag? Should we tolerate it? Exactly the same thing is being asked of Ukrainians.

#25 Comment By cka2nd On July 12, 2018 @ 3:39 pm

John S says: “Is Mr. Carpenter aware that North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons since Trump’s ‘beneficial reset’?”

So, what, North Korea should stop doing things BEFORE they have a binding agreement to stop doing those things? That’s not how the US and USSR handled nuclear weapons development during the START negotiations.