Trump’s Stumble at Helsinki – a Perk for Khamenei and Kim Jong-un?

The main lesson for US President Donald Trump may draw from his first face-off with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was that a summit is not in and of itself a strategic tool for a global power’s foreign policy – or even forging good personal relations.

Trump arrived in Finland tired and dispirited from fighting NATO allies in Europe and taking flak from huge street protests in the UK. High tea with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle was not quite the brace he needed for facing up to America’s long-time adversary.

The Russian president, in contrast, arrived fresh and glowing from the kudos he collected for hosting the brilliant World Cup events, which marked a high point in his 18-year career as Russian leader. Even with 700 Russian entities under US and European sanctions, Western condemnation for annexing Crimea, accusations of meddling in the US presidential election and of complicity in poison gas murders in Britain and its use in Syria – Putin and his country had avoided being branded as pariahs by the West at large.

In two hours of hammer and tongs alone with Trump, except for interpreters, Putin did not give an inch on nuclear disarmament, Ukraine or the Middle East. He left the US President with little substance to show from his much-anticipated trip to Finland, while forced to endure a massive backlash at home for citing the Russian leader’s case and bashing the US intelligence probe on Russian meddling in the US 2016 election. Even his Republican allies shot him down for committing this cardinal political sin while standing on the same platform as the accused party. Although he later recanted publicly – “I have full faith and support for intelligence findings on Russian meddling in our elections” – this incident restoked Trump’s dispute with key intelligence agencies at home. They refuse to tolerate Trump’s reduction of the issues with Russia at the heart of the Cold War, which continue to be the raison d’etre for US-Russian intelligence rivalry and NATO’s existence, as mere conspiracies for delegitimizing his election and sabotaging his efforts to “get along” with the Russian president.

Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and North Korea’s Kim Jong un will undoubtedly have taken glad note of the Trump performance in Helsinki. Each will have drawn his own conclusions for future interaction with Washington. Since Putin withheld his cooperation from military steps for the removal of Iran and its proxies from Syria, it is hard to see him going along with the harsher sanctions Trump is preparing for the Islamic Republic.

Before Helsinki, Iran was in dire straits, but now the ayatolahs may see a light at the end of the tunnel. Kim may use the impression of US presidential weakness to play ever harder ball on the road to disarming its nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons.

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