In the wake of the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit, there is much speculation about what was actually said between Putin and Trump behind closed doors and the uncertainty spread throughout the American government about whether agreements had been reached on issues such as Syria and the Ukraine. The subsequent invitation to Putin to visit the White house in the fall – probably just before the November elections – has resulted in further uncertainty especially after Putin’s statement that he proposed to Trump holding a referendum to resolve the eastern Ukraine issue. So, what is really going on here?
Quite frankly, we have all been scratching our heads as the behaviour in some respects is reminiscent of 18th and 19th century monarchs gathering to decide the fate of wide swaths of the world in private meetings. Putin is an autocrat and Trump is a business autocrat who admires political autocrats, so their personal level diplomacy may indeed be a series of moves designed to remake the world and return it to an age when Russian and American led blocs were the only game in town. Both the Russians and the Americans have seen their political influence decline in a multilateral world led by growing Asia-Pacific economies and both countries have been less than comfortable with the rise of China.