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Russian Summits (In Perspective)

Many in Congress and the media want to “censure” President Trump for his Helsinki performance with Putin. Go ahead, but allow for a little perspective. He made mistakes, but he is far from alone. We have been down this road before with decidedly mixed results. Perspective permits “cool heads,” a rare concept in our current partisan atmosphere. 

Going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during World War II, there have been a grand total of thirty-two Russian-American summits on a presidential level. Some were contentious, some were uneventful, some altered history, some were even comical, but none were so ominous as to cause censure for either of the principals. But if Trump’s behavior was so far away from previous engagements, we have homework to do. 

For those who appreciate perspective, all they need do is to hold up a photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting next to Stalin at Yalta, February 1945, where the Democrat icon conceded Poland and most of east Europe to the Red Army. The results condemned that entire area to tragedy for nearly half a century. FDR needs censure first; then we can attack Trump with a good conscience.

If the public wants contention, we can go back to July 24, 1959, when a Republican, Vice President Richard Nixon, argued heatedly with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the infamous “kitchen debate” held in the American exhibit in Moscow. The media had a circus, but little was accomplished, with Nixon later apologizing that he had “not been a very good host.”

Then show another Democrat, John F. Kennedy, sparring with Nikita Khrushchev at Vienna, June 1961, where the results were so severe that Kennedy had to go on national TV, call up troop reinforcements for Berlin, add billions to the defense budget, and triple the draft. Privately, JFK told a New York Times reporter that “It was the worst thing in my life. He [Khrushchev] savaged me.” In August, Khrushchev began building the Berlin Wall and announced that the Soviet Union was resuming nuclear weapons testing.

Horrible summit, but no censure.

As for innocuous summits, we have June 1967 at Glassboro, New Jersey, where Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin met with President Lyndon Johnson to discuss the Vietnam War and the Middle East. After Trump’s fiasco at Helsinki, much has been made on the secrecy of the talks, with only interpreters present. Such is common in most summits, where the heads of state prefer to avoid talking as though in some sort of “goldfish bowl.” At Glassboro, for example, only interpreters were present, with special secured “drapes” installed to further insulate the two principals. Nobody seemed to complain.

Nothing concrete came of this meeting except a so-called “Spirit of Glassboro” and Johnson’s comment that the summit “…made the world a little less dangerous.” The following year, Johnson was out of office, and Kosygin had lost power to Leonid Brezhnev, while the wars in both Vietnam and the Middle East went on as before.

So much for “spirits.”

Certainly the most prodigious and productive “summiteer” was Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who co-hosted a total of twelve such meetings during the 1980s and 1990s, five with Reagan, seven with H.W. Bush. The results of these are far too numerous to list here, suffice it to note that they led to a number of historic accomplishments on issues like arms control, human rights, and the environment. The net result was the end of the Cold War itself, highlighted by Reagan’s abrupt departure from the Reykjavik, Iceland 1986 meeting, vowing never to surrender the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to Gorbachev’s demands. But Reagan was never rude, just forceful.

The summits after the Cold War brought in a “spirit” of warmth and cordiality. Ironically, Trump today is vilified for treating Putin in similar ways, i.e., like a head of state, as if Trump instead was supposed to lecture Putin on Russia’s political culture. Now Russia “meddles;” in the Soviet period, (most of the twentieth century) the operative word was “overthrow.”

Perhaps another photo will suffice: President Bill Clinton in 1995 with his arm around Russian President Boris Yeltsin, laughing hysterically after their summit. The Russian leader was allegedly drunk during most of the meetings, once being mistaken by security as an intruder. Yeltsin called the U.S. media a “disaster.” But Clinton complimentary of Yeltsin: “As long as there is President Yeltsin in power in Russia, then definitely the reforms will continue.” Clinton was equally generous, providing financial assistance to Russia’s economy, including funds for nuclear scientists. Yeltsin went into rehab, while Clinton’s wife took over the family business.

George W. Bush was about the same. In his first meeting with Putin, he announced comradeship: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

So why is Trump’s behavior so universally condemned? Words have been unsparing: “disgusting,” “disgraceful,” “treasonous.” Some pundits chose to use history, but lost all perspective. Calling the Helsinki summit a “Pearl Harbor” is a defiant abuse of history.

Within a historic context, this is ridiculous, but the American culture is increasingly “ahistoric.” It’s also deeply partisan, and getting even more so.