Opinion: Helsinki Summit, disappointing, yes. Disastrous, no.

James Jay Carafano

The press conference concluding the Helsinki Summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin was deeply disappointing, to say the least. Sharing an international stage with the odious Russian leader, Trump missed multiple opportunities to hold him accountable.

Instead, the American president kept silent on a host of major issues. Moscow’s expansionism in Georgia and Crimea, its aggression in Ukraine went unremarked. Nor was there any mention of Russia’s continuing failure to live up to its nuclear arms control commitments, or its hectoring of our Eastern European Allies.

Carafano writes: "While Mr. Trump’s remarks were disappointing, the summit itself was not disastrous. That’s because Mr. Trump appears to have offered Putin no policy concessions."

Equally as bad, Trump blamed the sorry state of U.S.-Russia relations on previous U.S. administrations. For nearly two decades, now, Putin has relentlessly sought to undermine the U.S. and our allies. The blame rightly rests on his shoulders.

While Trump’s remarks were disappointing, the summit itself was not disastrous. That’s because Trump appears to have offered Putin no policy concessions. And so far, at least, the Trump administration has been the toughest on Russia since Reagan.

In many ways, Helsinki was an instant replay of the Singapore Summit. In Singapore, Trump heaped praise on the detestable Kim Jong-un and side-stepped contentious issues such as Pyonyang’s appalling human rights record. At both meetings, the tenor of Trump’s public remarks were cringe-inducing, but the president gave away nothing of great substance.

His detractors may jeer, but that won’t dissuade Trump from taking this approach in dealing with foreign competitors. He knows what he wants, and he believes this approach is the one best calculated to get him there.

What Trump wants is for foreign competitors—including the really nasty ones like Putin and Kim Jong-un—stop threatening U.S. vital interests. To that end, he relies heavily on the peace-through-strength strategy that served Reagan so well. Hence, Trump’s ramping up of both U.S. military strength and economic pressure via sanctions and other measures.

But even as Trump flexes the U.S. military and economic muscle, he also offers our competitors a chance to back off—an option that, if they were smart, would benefit them as much as America and our allies. Trump has made that pitch to the Chinese. He made it to the North Koreans (even scripting a video to show them a different way). He made it to the Iranians—announcing that if they want a do-over that will yield a more realistic deal, they should give him a call.

Trump has also sent a strong sign the off-ramp is open for Russia. But, to be clear, this is not the same as George W. Bush looking into Putin’s eye and discovering a “straightforward and trustworthy” soul. Nor is it a repeat Obama looking to “reset” relations via a newfound, post-electoral “flexibility.”

Both Bush and Obama went on to give the Russians something for nothing—and both got burned. Trump knows Putin is neither straightforward nor trustworthy, and he built a business empire by steadfastly refusing to give away something for nothing.

In Trumpian statecraft, happy talk is cheap. But he’s not about to give away anything of substance, unless he gets as much in return. And what is not on the bargaining table are U.S. vital interests.

So long as they are protected, Trump is willing to try something different. What allows him to pursue such disconcerting diplomacy is the peace-through-strength safety net he has put in place.

Make no mistake: There is a danger here. If Putin tries to test Trump and push a little harder, Trump will have to hit back hard. Alternatively, Trump could blink—an option that would immediately undermine his credibility both at home and abroad.

Will Trump’s strategy succeed? Nothing in Putin’s past suggests an inclination to abandon his agenda and take the off-ramp. But traditional diplomacy has yielded nothing for two decades. Perhaps Trump’s disconcerting diplomatic tactics will do better after all.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of the Heritage Foundation and directs the think tank’s research into issues of national security and foreign affairs.