The Real Trouble with the Helsinki Summit

Politics watchers were eager to glean any bit of insight from the earliest moments of the meeting of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The recently delivered indictments of twelve Russian military officers for interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections, and a pair of brief statements from Trump that seemed to express a desire for nuclear arms control, only heightened the anticipation of what was already expected to be a potentially consequential meeting. But the enduring opacity of the actual state of US-Russia relations gave rise to a kind of commentary that verged on art criticism, where hand gestures and body language were energetically dissected in tweets—anything to penetrate an interpersonal dynamic on which so much is riding.

Both leaders paid their respects to the goal of nuclear arms control: Putin specifically mentioned extending the New START treaty, addressing “implementation issues” of the INF treaty, and “non-placement of weapons in space” as goals for U.S.-Russia cooperation. Trump, in response to a question from Reuters, said that “Nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping […] ultimately that’s probably the most important thing that we can be working on.”

Though Putin has consistently signaled Russian willingness to extend New START, it’s possible to interpret the summit as a promising, if vague, first step on the road to better arms control cooperation with Russia. But the larger context of these statements should give a careful observer pause. Trump’s vocal support for Putin over US agencies, repeated assertions of his own innocence, and constant recourse to embellished retellings of the 2016 election completely eclipsed any substantive outcome of the talks. It’s hard to miss the irony of the fact that a man holding a sign that simply read “Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty” was forcibly removed from the press conference for possession of a “malicious object.”

Both leaders have worked to erode domestic and international institutions, or to bring them more directly under their personal control—and without robust international institutions and agreements driven by scientific and policy expertise, effective arms control simply can’t happen. Nuclear arms control is one of those things that, in the words of Zeynep Tufekci writing on competing models of expertise in the context of the Thai cave rescue, benefits from “a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors.”

Two powerful men with decisive control of two vast nuclear arsenals are at least as likely to destroy the world as to save it. Without meaningful checks on executive power, there’s almost nothing that anyone else can do in either case.

And besides, nuclear arms control isn’t just about the arsenals of declared nuclear countries. Recent reports of stolen nuclear materials highlight the fact that controlling nuclear materials is difficult, in the best of times, and it takes cooperation, training, and expertise. Any steps toward nuclear arsenal reductions are to be welcomed, but they must come with a commitment to cooperation and detailed long-term thinking about the role of nuclear weapons in the US-Russia relationship going forward. That’s the only winning approach for nonproliferation and disarmament that stands a chance of outliving its negotiators and securing a more stable future.

It’s hard to miss the irony of the fact that a man holding a sign that simply read “Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty” was forcibly removed from the press conference for possession of a “malicious object.”