The vodka bottles are chilled. The preparations are done. The wait is practically over. This Friday, President Donald Trump will sit down in the same room, at the same table, for the first time with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The question on everyone’s mind: Will Trump screw up and get outplayed by the wily former KGB operative? It’s a worry that Democrats and some hawkish Republicans on Capitol Hill have harbored since Trump’s inauguration: that the president, in his desire to reset the bilateral relationship with Moscow, will give away too many concessions too quickly, with only symbolic gestures from Putin in return.
Foreign policy experts in Washington, like former U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns and former top Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas, are concerned that Trump will get trounced at the meeting and leave “out-gamed” with little to show for his efforts. Even members of Trump’s own administration appear nervous over whether the president can take care of himself. The last thing the White House staff wants is to come home to stories about Trump being Putin’s subservient lapdog. The New York Times reported on Wednesday, “The biggest concern, people who have spoken recently with members of his team said, is that Mr. Trump, in trying to forge a rapport, appears to be unwittingly siding with Mr. Putin.”
They are right to be concerned. Trump is an inherently impulsive leader who appears predisposed to making decisions based on his gut. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad can attest to that: Trump authorized a Tomahawk missile strike on one of his airfields after viewing gruesome images of women and children who had died from chemical weapons exposure. Trump evidently isn’t all that interested in the daily intelligence briefs that he’s given with his morning coffee, so who knows how closely he’s paying attention when his advisers coach him on Putin’s negotiating tactics. One can easily conjure up a scenario where, in the midst of establishing a good personal rapport, Trump ignores the weeks of preparation he’s received from his national security staff.
After a few phone calls and a weekend session at his Florida resort with Xi Jinping this spring, barely an interview went by without Trump mentioning what a “great guy” the Chinese leader was and how his relationship with Xi would finally push Beijing to cut off the flow of money from Chinese banks that North Korea depends on to survive. The Trump-Xi relationship has worsened over the last few weeks, but it still seems like Trump continues to put a premium on personal bonds in the diplomatic process, as if a nation’s history and geopolitical interests can be overridden with a few overnight stays at Mar-a-Lago.
As Trump prepares to face off against Putin this week, the president ought to remember the Latin phrase primum non nocere: “first, do no harm.” Trump needs self-restraint in order to prevent himself from granting confidence-building concessions without Putin offering concessions that are just as significant — no one-way deals, no deference and no giving the benefit of the doubt to a man who has been trained in the art of psychological manipulation. At the very least, Trump needs to leave the meeting with the same diplomatic leverage that he went in with.
Ending the session with no agreements reached won’t mean that the sit-down was a failure. For a town accustomed to assuming the worst regardless of what Trump says or does, Washington would be pleasantly surprised with a stalemate.