More than three decades ago, American and Russian leaders met each other in a small Nordic capital as much of the world held its collective breath. The two leading nuclear powers were confronted with existential challenges as their respective nuclear arsenals were ballooning out of control. Something needed to be done to break the logjam.
On Monday, the two leaders were not Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who met in Reykjavik, Iceland on October 11-12, 1986, but Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin conferring in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, and while the differences of these two summits could not have been more striking, the stakes were no less existential.
Guillaume Serina’s “An Impossible Dream” – a book that I’ve just translated from the French and will be published next spring with a preface by Gorbachev – describes how the Soviet leader stunned Reagan with a proposal that both sides destroy their entire nuclear arsenals. It was as close as the world has ever come to ending the most threatening and destabilizing force on the planet. This proposal, which came to be known as “zero nukes,” foundered only on Reagan’s unwillingness to relinquish his beloved, yet utterly impractical, Star Wars space defense system.
The United States ultimately came out the winner. Within three years, communism came to an end, along with the wounded and impoverished Soviet Union’s dominance of half of Europe.
This time, Washington had another unparalleled opportunity. But in Helsinki on Monday, the American president was outfoxed by a wily Russian leader playing from a position of unquestioned strength, toying with a deeply damaged counterpart. It could have gone very differently. And indeed, it is likely that we will not know for days, weeks or months just what Trump really gave up to Putin. We can only know what Putin did not concede at their joint press conference that followed.
The Russian leader said that none of his military officers played any role in tampering with U.S. elections. Yet lawyers working on U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into vote meddling have named 12 GRU Russian military intelligence operatives that U.S. intelligence says did invade the U.S. democratic system. Their indictment explains how they accomplished this, virtually down to the last keystroke.
We also know that Putin will still not concede he invaded the neighboring nation of Ukraine and seized a chunk of its territory at gunpoint, and that Trump failed to win any admission of that reality from him.
There may be a road to new negotiations to limit the nuclear arsenals of both sides. But with no memorandums or signed statements in the immediate aftermath, we have no idea how that may be accomplished – if at all.
What this summit has given the world is what Putin wanted from the beginning – his recognition by the individual who should be the leader of the free world as a legitimate member of the club of major powers. And this was the real present that Trump provided – standing in great friendship at adjoining podiums, trading compliments, smiles and handshakes. All this as America’s allies stood on the sidelines watching years of successful isolation of a pariah nation coming to a sad and hardly unpredictable conclusion. Unlike the outcome of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting, so many issues today remain unresolved – landmines for the future of democracy and unity of the Western alliance itself.
David A. Andelman, is a former foreign correspondent, a visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today. He is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” @DavidAndelman
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.