Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Lord is a CNN political commentator. Previously, he served in the Reagan administration as a White House political adviser. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. For a counter perspective, read Doug Elmets’ analysis.
Jeffrey Lord: Trump's fans, like me, believe he succeeded in putting American interests first at the G20 summit
But history will be the true judge of his performance, writes Lord
Presidents and summits – whether with Russian leaders or European allies – have an uneven history. In the case of President Donald Trump, reviews of his performance at the G20 remain consistently mixed: Trump critics hated his performance, while Trump fans loved it.
As a fan, I would give Trump an 11 out of 10. He did exactly what the people who voted for him wanted him to do. He never wavered from putting America first – or, in campaign vernacular, making America great again – whether the subject was climate change, trade or North Korea.
But history shows us no meeting goes perfectly – and sometimes it can be difficult to gauge the success of a meeting until years later.
The moments when presidents sit down with their Russian counterparts have always drawn particularly close attention. This practice began during World War II, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt attended two meetings with the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin and Britain’s Winston Churchill.
The first meeting didn’t occur until the late 1943 Tehran Summit. It is notable that to break the ice with Stalin, Roosevelt found it necessary to make Churchill the butt of jokes – referencing his cigar smoking and other eccentricities. Stalin responded with appreciation, and the President’s relationship with the man he himself began to call “Uncle Joe” was off to a positive start.
Most notoriously, it was the second Roosevelt-Stalin summit at Yalta – at first seen as a success – that has been deemed, in retrospect, a serious failure, effectively laying the groundwork for the Cold War. After the meeting, Stalin made it his business to establish what Churchill would eventually call “the Iron Curtain” – or postwar Soviet control of Eastern Europe.
Roosevelt was reported to have said ln reference to US diplomat Averill Harriman, “Averill is right. We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.” Roosevelt believed the postwar world would have a free Europe. Stalin – and inevitably his successors – had other ideas.
These meetings continued after Roosevelt died, and once again they had both positive and negative outcomes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower even had one spectacular cancellation after the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane over Russia. The embarrassing event brought an already planned 1960 Paris summit with Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev to a screeching and humiliating halt.
But Trump appears to be faring a bit better than Eisenhower. At least, he certainly thinks so. Upon departing the G20, Trump tweeted, “The #G20Summit was a wonderful success and carried out beautifully by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Thank you!”
And there is every reason for the President to feel he has scored a success. He had his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and, together, they created a new and needed ceasefire in southwest Syria, in the regions of Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda. They also laid the groundwork for future conversations on issues binding and dividing the two nations.
It wasn’t just his meeting with Putin that is noteworthy.
When asked by a reporter whether Mexico would pay for a wall on the US-Mexico border, Trump reiterated “absolutely” in the presence of the Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
In his meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, he stressed the important role China needs to play in keeping North Korea at bay. And throughout the conference, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to withdrawal from the Paris climate accords – on the basis that it remains a bad deal for America.
Noteworthy here is the President’s famous dictum that when he is attacked or done ill, he will strike back in spades. Make no mistake: if at any point the President feels Putin has been double-dealing him on any issue – cybersecurity, Syria, etc.– the relationship will suddenly sour.
Ditto the President’s relationship with any of the other leaders in the G20, which is precisely what gives the President an advantage. As Trump advocated in “The Art of the Deal,” the ability to get up and walk away from the table, as Ronald Reagan did at the Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, is what gives a presidential negotiator leverage over an opponent.
If history is a guide, it will be years before the consequences of the Trump-Putin meeting at the G20 summit will be fully known. But for now, count on the President’s supporters seeing this as a great win – a win in which Trump stayed true to his campaign promises to put American interests above all else.