Diplomatic summits contain dualities common in politics and life. They express the divergence between presentation and reality, hope and expectation.
Correspondingly, the reaction to summits can be similarly binary. World leaders in general either dislike or adore summit diplomacy.
Those who dislike summits claim they are barely more than PR exercises — meetings at which little is decided and everything is conducted largely for the benefit of the cameras. Many of those who like international gatherings of that sort acknowledge all that — and appreciate them for the exact same reasons.
Politicians are rarely hesitant to supplement their images. International summits provide a good many opportunities for such things.
Less than camera-shy world leaders are presented with banks of eager flashbulbs. Those whose nations are side-lined on the world stage can indicate, with physical proximity to their equivalents, that they are not, in fact, all that isolated after all.
These exercises, fruitful or not, are given a gloss of international importance which appeals to the self-important.
For all his, and his supporters’ dislike of global elites, as manifested in the globe-trotting men of no nation who crowd gatherings such as the World Economic Forum at Davos, Donald Trump is a noted fan of the principle of the summit.
His first major foreign engagement since his inauguration as American president was a multi-nation meeting in Riyadh, at which he and the leaders of the Arab world posed for odd-looking photographs and made grand promises about ending global jihadist terrorism.
Trump also enjoys causing a stir at meetings of the Group of Seven nations, and NATO. But it is one-on-one diplomacy for which he has an even greater love. Two summits in the past two months have served to demonstrate as much.
The most recent of them occurred this month in Helsinki. There, in the Finnish capital, Trump met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin — not for the first time, but in the first dedicated bilateral summit whose sole intention was to bring those two leaders together.
The Helsinki summit is of a piece with last month’s Singapore summit — in which Trump encountered the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
These two events, in combination with other recent episodes in international diplomacy, suggest that Trump has perfected a sort of summitry which is entirely superficial, one which affords him domestic political advantage despite producing few tangible benefits.
In Helsinki, as in Singapore, Trump’s primary aim was one of appearing to conduct diplomacy rather than acting to advancing it.
The foundations of this approach are longstanding, and have roots in wishful ignorance.
Trump speaks — as he has spoken for years — in rosy platitudes about how much nicer it would be for Russia and the United States, and the United States and Korea, to get along. This is a skin-deep analysis, born of the president’s rare propensity for happy thoughts about those dictators and authoritarians he likes.
Trump no doubt believes this approach can pay dividends. In practice, it is fair to surmise that Trump can be satisfied easily, with his happy thoughts evidenced less with concrete promises than with little more than pictures of the two national leaders smiling and shaking hands, and footage of them exchanging jokes while the cameras flashed.
In Singapore, Trump was content to secure few real commitments from Kim in exchange for an end to open hostility that had previously existed between the two countries — and which many histrionics had seen as the precursor to nuclear war.
The president’s happy thoughts then became happy talk.
Since that time, Trump has spoken more positively about Kim than even diplomatic language demands. Trump sincerely praises the power of the young Kim and talks up, as only a salesman can, the potential of North Korea, a country in which the individual is entirely subordinated to the state, where possibility millions live in prisons reasonably likened to the concentration camp and the gulag.
Happy talk and happy thoughts are meant to represent a happy outcome; and Trump’s domestic allies and supporters can be trusted to believe it. But little, in real terms, can been gained from this approach. North Korea retains the fundaments of its nuclear programme; its people remain unfree. None of this will ever change if the present policy — which the Singapore summit and its aftermath exemplifies — continues to be followed.
Before the domestic backlash — which Trump and his administration did not foresee — the same script had likely been prepared for Helsinki and Putin.
Trump faces a large and at least partially insincere amount of domestic criticism regarding Russia. Rhetorical attacks on proven excesses of the Russian state are not illegitimate, regardless of the cause. But it is reasonable to note that many people who are greatly animated about Putin and his actions cared less before such things could be effectively deployed against a sitting Republican president.
In any case, critics of all stripes say they want Trump to be tough on Putin; but he will not be — and not just because of the identity of many of these detractors. Until recently, it must be noted, that domestic criticism was if anything a spur for Trump supporters.
The domestic political calculation is fairly obvious; Trump’s supporters seemed genuinely to believe that, under Hillary Clinton, the United States would end up at war with Russia. In their calculation, if Trump and Putin get on, and do so before the cameras, that’s sufficient to indicate that there will be no war, and that everything is well.
Happy talk eases the formation of happy thoughts.
But through all of this, no solutions appear. Not only does Trump bolster dictators like Kim and authoritarians like Putin by failing to censure their excesses, and affording them lavish praise; he also achieves very little in terms of advancing his own nation’s interests. North Korea will not denuclearise. There will be no war — but there was never going to be a war. Similarly, Putin will not withdraw from Syria or Ukraine, or scale down his involvement in espionage or cyberwarfare, and so on.
Trump therefore uses summits more to benefit his own image than to achieve anything more efficacious. And that makes something of a mockery of even the most empty and superficial form of public diplomacy.
Perhaps the fact that his Helsinki comments have been met, not only with the outsized criticism which perpetually follows on the heels of any story concerning Trump and Russia, but also a genuine revision in the views of some of the president’s supporters, heralds good things — and positive change. One can only hope.
Until then, this unconventional diplomacy will continue, with little positive consequence, and little possibility of a real change in course.