The telephone conversation last Saturday between the American and Russian presidents seems to have been amicable and constructive, at least in a general sense. They are reported to have discussed key world issues as potential partners, not as adversaries or enemies. That is important, for there is no reason to perpetuate the false image that has arisen of late that the two countries are on a collision course. Actually, at the most fundamental level, Russian and American interests are compatible—in many cases identical.
In regard to some important issues, I hope that President Putin will convince President Trump to change the positions he took during the campaign. One regards the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. That is an important agreement that the Republican leadership in Congress and Mr. Trump the candidate trashed. In my view it is important that the United States continue to adhere to that agreement. If President Putin can convince President Trump to do so, the whole world should cheer.
A second area where President Putin’s advice might be helpful is that regarding relations with Islam and Muslims. Heading the government in a country that is twenty percent Muslim by heritage and much more vulnerable to terrorist activity than is the United States, President Putin could explain why the fight against terrorism must not be vitiated by a campaign against Muslims or attacks on Islam as a religion.
When the two presidents meet, they need to restore cooperation to reduce nuclear weapons, secure fissionable material, and prevent proliferation. A full engagement on these vital issues will be possible only if the range of problems facing Russia, the United States, and the rest of the world are approached in a spirit of common purpose rather than of rivalry that assumes that what is good for one is bad for the other. A “zero-sum” mentality is a barrier to cooperation even when all would benefit from it.
As for the U.S. and other Western sanctions against Russia, they are producing no useful result and are damaging to Russia’s ability to support common efforts against threats to us all. Nevertheless, Russia needs, in its own interest, to stop the hostilities in the Donbas and make an accommodation with the Ukrainian authorities that preserves the unity of most of the country, even if Crimea’s status remains in dispute. If Russia can encourage peace in the Donbas, which is unquestionably in Russia’s interest, it should be possible for the United States and its allies to lift the more important sanctions, to the benefit of us all.
The leaders of both the United States and Russia contributed to the dangerous rift that widened during President Putin’s third administration and President Obama’s second. If presidents Putin and Trump are able to deal with each other in a spirit of mutual respect, it will benefit both countries, and their allies as well.