The Trump Form of Summitry
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Former Undersecretary of State George Ball was a banker who became a diplomat for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. As various leaders were scurrying about trying to end the Viet Nam War in the period after he left office—a war which he vigorously opposed–Ball critiqued extensively not only about the substance of U.S. foreign policy but more importantly about the process. He railed out frequently against heads of state summit meetings as a waste of time. He suggested that they were either merely photo-ops or signing ceremonies. All the serious negotiations was being handled effectively by those some rungs below the national leaders. While the ceremonies were important in themselves, no one should ever have assumed anything new of substance would occur, regardless of how forcefully Governments’ press operations would endeavor to spin it. It is against this thesis that the meeting tomorrow between Trump and Putin should be worrisome.
It has been stated repeatedly by White House sources that there is no agenda for the meeting between Trump and Putin. Surmise what one will, when White House, State Department, and Pentagon staff reiterate this fact, one can only conclude that no one really knows what Trump will say, do or offer. If in fact reports are correct that there will be no one else in the room, both sides will be able to say what they want and no one will be able to challenge it. There will be no official record for this White House or for the future. Maybe this works in real estate but this is not how diplomacy should work.
Trump has his own style—all presidents do—but there are certain rules of procedure, most which Trump jettisons on a whim. Trump may well like personal diplomacy, but given the paucity of high level diplomats in place in the Trump Administration and the absence of any foreign policy negotiators, Americans should not be surprised at his behavior and truly ought to be concerned.
Trump has never met Putin. Tillerson is still engaged in on-the-job-training and his deputy, John Sullivan has been in place for a month. H.R. McMaster appears to be acting as a White House go-fer and Jared Kushner is hardly a seasoned foreign policy pro.
Trump has no team of negotiators, no personal experience, no agenda, no record of the meetings, and is going face-to-face with America’s most challenging adversary; who, himself, is recognized as a very slick and dangerous operator. Members of Congress in both parties should be extremely uneasy over this style of high-level diplomacy.
This is precisely the negotiating system which Ball decried and warned against. It could be a disaster in the making.