If you closed your eyes and listened to the words emanating from President Trump’s meetings in Europe last week — instead of, say, reading his tweets — it sounded as if American foreign policy had suddenly been hijacked by adults. Most of the time, at least.
At the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Trump returned U.S. policy on Russia toward something resembling normalcy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as the very model of a pragmatic, well-briefed president at work.
“There’s a lot of things in the past that both of us are unhappy about,” Tillerson said. “The perspective of both of them was: This is a really important relationship. Two largest nuclear powers in the world. It’s a really important relationship. How do we start making this work?”
It’s hard to quarrel with that kind of practicality. Of course we want a productive relationship with Russia, even though our interests still collide much of the time.
The one exception to my “normalcy” thesis is that while Trump “pressed” Putin on election hacking, in Tillerson’s retelling, the pressure was evidently a little soft. The president didn’t threaten consequences if Russia were to continue its subversion. (He warned that Congress might pass new sanctions, but that’s only semi-tough.)
Nor did he get a clear commitment from Putin to stop interfering. Instead, Putin denied ever doing anything of the sort — and whatever Trump said in response was mild enough that Russia’s foreign minister described it as U.S. acceptance of Putin’s denial.
Months after the election, Trump still won’t state plainly and publicly, without absurd hedges, that Russia meddled on his behalf. For Trump, that’s not foreign policy, it’s personal: A shadow on his legitimacy as president.
Trump and Tillerson sounded a bit soft on Syria too. They tacitly confirmed that their policy now is to allow Russia’s client, Bashar Assad, to remain in power if that’s the only way to end the country’s dreadful civil war. Assad shouldn’t be allowed to stay for the long run, Tillerson added, but that was well short of the Obama administration’s demands for regime change — a demand, it must be noted, that Obama never managed to enforce.
“By and large, our objectives (in Syria) are exactly the same,” Tillerson said optimistically, unconsciously echoing his predecessor, John Kerry, who pursued Russian cooperation fruitlessly for years.
The two countries announced an agreement on a ceasefire in southwest Syria, a sensible deal designed to show that the two countries can work together. And it will be a useful test of Russia’s intentions. (If it’s anything like the ceasefire deals Kerry negotiated, it won’t last a month.)
The real surprise was how tough Trump came across on some issues — particularly NATO.
In Warsaw, Trump finally reaffirmed the U.S. treaty commitment to defend NATO countries against Russia. Trump also charged — in harsher language than he’s used before — that Moscow is threatening Europe’s security through “propaganda, financial crimes and cyberwarfare” as well as old-fashioned military pressure.
“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran, and to instead join the community of responsible nations,” he said.
Not much promise of bromance in that. Score one for the foreign policy aides known in Washington as Trump’s “grownups,” especially his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. In May, McMaster tried to get Trump to embrace NATO at a summit in Brussels; when Trump balked, U.S. allies were frantic. The Warsaw speech was the president’s do-over.
Of course the president is still capable of derailing carefully-plotted policies by tweeting — and by the time you read this, he may have done just that. (He tweeted from the G-20 Summit that “everybody” there was talking about Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta’s emails, an assertion that must have puzzled the 19 leaders who were all talking about other things.)
Still, Trump made it through his first face-to-face meeting with Putin without any gaffes. There was no bear hug, no Trump-style bombast. Trump did not claim, as he once did, that his special bond with Putin would make “great deals” easy. Most important, Trump finally made it clear that he accepts the 68-year-old obligation to defend NATO countries from Russian pressure.
His critics will say that’s a low bar, and they’re right. But it’s a start.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.