President Barack Obama canceled his upcoming summit with Vladimir Putin for a simple, sensible reason: There was no point in having one.
Summits used to be big deals. The Russian and American heads of state wouldn’t bother to meet until an agenda had been set, all but a few disagreements had been settled, and the odds of a successful outcome had been deemed high. To do otherwise was to risk attaching the president’s prestige to a diplomatic failure — and transforming a routine impasse into a high-profile crisis.
True, this standard was established in Cold War times, when deadlocks and crises could potentially spur catastrophe. Still, it’s not a bad idea to restore the basic principle: Summits between presidents may not be the high-stakes affairs that they once were, but they shouldn’t be routine, and they shouldn’t take place without a good reason.
It’s doubtful, of course, that Obama canceled the meeting after deep meditation on the purposes of diplomacy. His decision was driven to a large degree by current events and short-term politics, not least Putin’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden.
Last week, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, told NPR that Obama should go ahead with the summit, so that he and Putin can “try to nail down the parameters of a future relationship.” If Obama canceled the trip “for domestic political reasons,” Trenin went on, Putin would perceive the move “as a sign of domestic political weakness of the Obama administration.”
This is nonsense on two levels. First, Trenin assumes that Obama called off the meeting entirely because of Snowden, which I don’t think is the case, and that the Snowden factor is entirely a matter of domestic American politics, which it certainly is not. And to the extent it is political, Obama’s cancellation strengthens his standing at home; the move has been praised by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Second, presidents shouldn’t spend their scarce time laying out “the parameters” of relations with another country, especially when relations between the United States and Russia are, at once, so clear and so disputatious. Given the random pointlessness of the last Obama-Putin session and the risk that a high-profile reprise might aggravate the growing sense of despondence, it’s best, at this point, to turn the task of recasting relations to the diplomats.
And it’s worth emphasizing that the two presidents have turned the task over to their highest-ranking diplomats. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are still planning to meet in Washington this Friday with their counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu. To drive home the point that the Cold War hasn’t returned, Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, tweeted this week (in Russian and English, something he doesn’t often do, so that followers in both countries can take note) that he’d just met with presidential aide Yuri Ushakov and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov “to discuss the full range of issues in US-Russia relations.”
In the old days, “ministerial meetings,” like the one with Kerry, Hagel, Lavrov and Shoigu, were considered pretty big deals. This one should be, too. Have presidential summits become so commonplace that a meeting between the two countries’ top officials on foreign and defense policy is viewed as a pale substitute? If so, it’s a good idea to cut back on presidential summits.
Meanwhile, Obama has not called off plans to attend the G-20 meeting, which is taking place next month in St. Petersburg. Putin, of course, will be the host. The two will no doubt behave cordially; they might even hold a brief side session, if the ministerial meeting opens up a path or two worth exploring. In short, it’s not the end of the world; it may even mark the resumption of normal diplomacy.
Fred Kaplan is Slate’s War Stories columnist and author of the book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.