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Here’s what political science can tell us about that Trump-Putin press conference

- July 17, 2018


The joint Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki left a lot of people surprised, if not stunned. The word “unprecedented” got a lot of air time from U.S. political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

At TMC, political scientists have looked closely at Trump’s style of diplomacy, the nuts and bolts of high-level summits, and what we really know about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Here’s a roundup of some insights from recent months.

1. Trump brings the unexpected to diplomacy…but his moves have been hiding in plain sight

On the morning after the 2016 election, TMC senior editor Elizabeth Saunders wrote that leaders’ foreign policy beliefs matter and are very unlikely to change. As Thomas Wright had written during the campaign, Trump’s three core beliefs are an aversion to trade, a disdain for alliances and an affinity for authoritarian regimes.

A year and a half later, President Trump is still regularly pulling off the trick of being unpredictable and unsurprising at the same time. He’s unpredictable in that we’ve come to expect disruption, whether it’s trade wars, new verbal attacks on close allies like Canada, the E.U. or a longstanding alliance like NATO. Even his own team seems to be in the dark about exactly what he’ll say or do at any given moment — and the Helsinki summit was no exception.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/07/01/the-u-s-isnt-being-very-neighborly-heres-what-it-means-for-canadas-foreign-policy/?utm_term=.3e60247a2a74″]The U.S. isn’t being very neighborly. Here’s what it means for Canada’s foreign policy.[/interstitial_link]

But he’s also unsurprising in that his verbal attacks on allies, multilateral institutions and trade deals, as well as his embrace of authoritarian leaders like Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, reflect his core beliefs. Trump is sticking to his own script, and it’s not likely to change.

2. Summits can be tricky 

What is a summit supposed to accomplish? “Deliverables” are important, as former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul explained last week. Leaders ideally go into a summit well briefed on the specific goals or topics to discuss, after their foreign policy teams have worked for months to make sure each side leaves with the strategic gains or concessions to make the summit worthwhile.

Mira Rapp-Hooper gave us a good run-down of a previous summit, the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore in June. With just weeks to prepare and a U.S. national security team that included no nuclear or arms control experts, the Singapore summit’s promise of “denuclearization” left far more questions than answers, as Jane Vaynman and Vipin Narang explained. For the Helsinki summit, any “deliverables” were even less obvious. So was the outcome for the United States.

Face-to-face diplomacy is important, as Marcus Holmes and Keren Yarhi-Milo explain — leaders do gain “information and impressions about the intentions of their counterparts.” But, as James Goldgeier points out, having senior experts in the room to advise and keep an official record is also important. One-on-one meetings like the Trump-Putin summit easily can create misunderstandings later on if one side assumed there was agreement on a specific issue, but the other party had a different recollection. With little information other than the press conference, there’s reason to be concerned about promises and future expectations.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/07/19/there-are-no-notes-on-trumps-meeting-with-putin-thats-a-big-deal/?utm_term=.9985291c0ef8″]Trump and Putin one-on-one is not a good idea. Here’s why.[/interstitial_link]

3. Putin needed this summit — more than Trump 

TMC senior editor Josh Tucker and Jordan Gans-Morse invited foreign policy experts to answer the questions that President Nixon had asked himself when famously preparing to meet with another foreign power: What did China want? What did the United States want? What did they both want?

The experts in this case — ranging from former U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to Russian political science professors — offered quick, sharp takes on what the U.S. and Russia each hoped to accomplish. For instance, Mariya Y. Omelicheva, professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said:

Putin’s government wants three “R’s”: respect toward Russia; recognition of its rights to pursue independent foreign and domestic policy without Western criticism or meddling; and reintegration into the European space on terms acceptable to Russia.

The Trump administration is pursuing three “A’s:” abdication of U.S. global responsibilities and moral standing; alteration of international agreements; and an “America First” foreign and domestic policy.

None of them predicted hearing the U.S. leader blame his own country for anything.

Trump’s conciliatory tone with Putin may have backfired when he discounted his own intelligence community — which analysis by nuclear security analyst Alex Bolfrass revealed is largely on track. And it may be leaving people even more suspicious as to what happened when Putin and Trump were alone behind closed doors.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/01/16/did-the-u-s-underestimate-north-koreas-weapons-program-its-not-that-simple/?utm_term=.3c71d233f82f”]Did the U.S. underestimate North Korea’s weapons program? It’s not that simple.[/interstitial_link]

As discussion of potential Russian compromising material on Trump returns to the fore, check out these Monkey Cage pieces on kompromat and its history from Katy Pearce and Scott Radnitz, and Joshua Tucker’s interview with Keith Darden.

And Trump is now at odds now with many within his own party. As James Goldgeier also wrote here at TMC last year, “Republicans used to compete with each other over who was tougher on Russia (or, more precisely, the Soviet Union), and to condemn Democrats for their purported softness.” That has changed.

With surprise the “new normal” these days, look to TMC to make help sense of all that is happening in the United States and around the world. Check out the latest analysis here on our landing page and sign up for our newsletter.