What Trump and Putin should've really discussed in Asia

Will Trump sit down with Putin, as he expected?
Will Trump sit down with Putin, as he expected?

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Will Trump sit down with Putin, as he expected? 02:06

Story highlights

  • David A. Andelman: Every conversation between Trump and Putin shouldn't focus on Russia meddling in US elections
  • Trump still needs Putin's influence to resolve global conflicts with North Korea, Syria, and Ukraine, he writes

David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today, is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." He formerly served as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in Asia and Europe and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Diplomacy is all too often about missed opportunities. The encounters in Danang between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump were certainly examples of such chances. By all accounts, a couple of brief grip 'n grins at photo ops are hardly the right venues for serious discussions on the manifold issues between these two world leaders.

Moreover, it should be quite clear by now that any such encounters going forward should not center on the possibility of Russian meddling in US elections. It either did or did not happen -- though US intelligence agencies are clear in saying it did. But get off it, at least for the moment. There is no end to the critical forward-looking issues Putin and Trump need to solve.
And the United States needs to be a player at this global table or cede the leadership role to autocrats of two empires that barely share any of our values.
    This week, Trump has met with both of them -- Xi Jinping of China, who spent more time showing off his Forbidden City with pomp and glitter that could easily overwhelm any substantive discussions; and Vladimir Putin, who loves little more than to marginalize Donald Trump, leader of the one other power he believes could supplant him as a global figure.
    With the threat of losing global footing, why didn't Trump push for more of a meeting? There are several possibilities.
    First, it would have taken time away from the tightly-scheduled APEC conference, where both leaders needed to make their presence felt. Trump recognized the need to fill the vacuum left by his precipitous withdrawal from the all but completely negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact (which is still going ahead with the other partners in the accord). Putin needs to reassert his position as an Asian nation. Russia's eastern extension through Siberia shares borders with the Pacific, not to mention North Korea and China. And Putin wants to be seen at least on an equal footing with Jinping and Trump as a truly global leader -- which means a viable Asian presence.
    But then there's the reality that Trump, the self-proclaimed great negotiator, recognizes it's unlikely he'll be able to arrive at a good outcome with Putin, the consummate negotiator, on outstanding issues. From the other side, there is also the alternative that perhaps Putin just didn't want to give Trump any opening to look even marginally presidential.
    On Saturday, he did manage to sound presidential by admitting, in a gaggle on board Air Force One, "I would rather have him (Putin) get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I would rather ... get to work with him on the Ukraine. He could really help us on North Korea."
    What Trump does hope for, quite rightly, is "to have that kind of relationship where you could call or you could do something and they would pull back from North Korea, or they would pull back from Syria, or maybe pull back from Ukraine. I mean, if we could solve the Ukraine problem." Even though in current circumstances it's somewhat unrealistic to want all of that, it would've been good to make a solid effort to lay down a foundation of diplomacy. Conflict resolutions that rely on a personal relationship with Putin might have a better chance of happening.
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    There's the issue of finally getting rid of ISIS in Syria and closing the door on its use of Syrian territory. Then, of course, there's the even thornier question of what comes next for Putin's firm ally: the murderous dictator, Bashar al-Assad. He would not survive the setting of the next sun after any Russian withdrawal -- a still all but impossible dream, though the United States should continue to insist on such a scenario. Not surprisingly, this issue of Syria after Assad was hardly addressed in the joint statement that Russia and the United States did issue, and which did little more than restate long established tropes to defeat ISIS and avoid military conflict between American and Russian forces on the ground.
    The other more intractable problems between the two countries remain. There's North Korea and what the Russians, whose main port of Vladivostok is barely 70 miles from the Korean frontier and well within the fallout zone, might be able to do in terms of strict enforcement of UN-authorized sanctions against Pyongyang that even China appears finally to be implementing.
    Finally, of course there's Ukraine and what comes next there -- could Russia ever be induced to relinquish Crimea or its ambitions to control vast stretches of eastern Ukraine itself? Both unlikely dreams, but nevertheless they will never be possible if they continue unaddressed.

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    After all, most encounters between heads of state are ultimately atmospheric. Good personal chemistry doesn't hurt when it comes to making significant progress on difficult issues. But the real progress is made at the working level long before the leaders are ever thrown into the ring together. Sadly, the staff work that preceded today's joint communique barely moved even the Syrian needle.
    Sometimes, it is worth making that extra leap into the unknown -- a move that Trump, perhaps feeling ill-equipped or overmatched, has failed to take. But he needs to if he is to re-establish America's role in shaping a world in our image.