Soon Putin and Trump will meet in Helsinki — here's what they should do

Soon Putin and Trump will meet in Helsinki — here's what they should do
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No one knows what Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE and Vladimir Putin will talk about when they meet in Helsinki on July 16. But everyone now knows what they won’t talk about.

On July 2, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov nixed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine as a topic. “Crimea cannot and will never be on the agenda because Crimea is an integral part of Russia,” he said. Nor are Trump and Putin likely to dwell on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. “You can only ask so many times," Trump concluded in November. “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” he tweeted without contradiction as recently as June 28.

Of course, Crimea and election meddling are politically thorny issues. What about starting with a less divisive, more technical problem as a basis for improving relations between Washington and Moscow? What about starting with New START?

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New START is the agreement signed in 2010 that limits U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and nuclear-capable submarines and bombers. Extending New START beyond its 2021 expiration date has been suggested as a smart item to top the agenda in Helsinki. Yet the treaty, too, may get short shrift. Trump was both initially unfamiliar with and subsequently opposed to it during a phone call with Putin last year.

 

While Trump has been adamant that getting along with Russia is a “good thing,” no good agenda for a rapprochement has emerged. Worse, having no agenda in Helsinki plays to Putin’s advantage. The canny former KGB officer will surely use an unstructured tête-à-tête to try to win Trump over to the Russian president’s own self-serving views.

There’s a better solution. The U.S. president should seize the initiative by insisting that an important, albeit unconventional issue be the focus in Helsinki. Simply put, Trump and Putin should officially end World War II.

Yes, the war ended in Europe in May 1945 and in the Pacific in September of the same year. But Russia and Japan never finalized a peace treaty. The sticking point was control over a small archipelago known to Russians as the Kuril Islands and to the Japanese as the Northern Territories. Seven decades on the dispute remains unresolved.

Today, the U.S. president has a number of diplomatic tools to move Russia and Japan toward an agreement. For Moscow, Trump could promise incremental sanctions relief for reaching a quick, final and generous agreement with the U.S. ally Japan. For Tokyo, Trump could propose favorable terms for Japan as he crafts his tariff and trade policies. The White House could also take steps to increase Tokyo’s clout in its emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.

In all, encouragement toward a final agreement would require few U.S. resources. In fact, Russian and Japanese negotiators have already reportedly made significant progress and are circling a deal that would divide the islands between the nations. The most pressing need is for a figure such as Trump to carry the deal over the finish line.

Nor should mediating a dispute over a scattering of small islands be dismissed as somehow beneath the United States. Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution has convincingly called the U.S. mediation of the Parsley Island crisis between Spain and Morocco in 2002 an example of America’s deep engagement abroad. If, as some fear, the alternative after Helsinki is Trump unilaterally revoking some sanctions against Russia for nothing in return, all while dismissing Crimea as a fait accompli, then insisting on a resolution to the decades-long Kuril Islands dispute instead is clearly the better option for making the most of U.S. leverage abroad.

For too long the Trump administration has been on the defensive in justifying its “America first” agenda — an agenda that has been derided by critics as “American alone.” By actively engaging on the select issue of the disputed islands, an issue of no immediate U.S. interest, Trump would go a long way in defanging the criticism that his administration’s foreign policy is unyieldingly inward-facing and standoffish toward allies.

Finally, the historical significance of “ending” World War II should appeal to Trump’s own interest in headline-making achievements and accolades. Who knows? With its echoes of Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation in 1905 of the Russo-Japanese War (for which TR won the Nobel Peace Prize), a Trump-led resolution to the current dispute might even result in another trip by the U.S. president soon, not to Helsinki, but to Oslo.

John Richard Cookson is a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.