A summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a week away. Pundits across the political spectrum are already debating and prognosticating what will be said, and ultimately, what will be done. The more important question is, “What questions will be asked?”
Both leaders will undoubtedly make bold statements, deliver optimistic remarks and heap mountains of praise on each other. This comes right out of the diplomacy 101 handbook. However, the key to the success of any summit is not what is said in public, and it isn’t even what is said in private. What is asked in private, on the other hand, will determine the long-term impact of the meeting and shape the direction of the U.S.-Russia relationship for the future.
There is no question that Russia attempted to meddle in the 2016 election. To date there is no evidence of collusion with either of the campaigns. Russia has attempted to meddle in American elections for decades, but this time it achieved its goals of planting discord, division and distrust. These nefarious activities deserve hard, specific and direct confrontation from U.S. officials.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. commented, "You hear it a lot on the talk shows, you read about election meddling in popular punditry. … But the fact of the matter is that we have not had the kind of conversations — direct conversations, across-the-table conversations — about things like election meddling and malign activity that really do need to take place."
Asking meaningful questions and listening to the response has become a lost art in the political realm. In Congress, “hearings” are mostly echo chambers where representatives and senators regularly use all of their “questioning time” listening to themselves make statements they hope will get picked up by news organizations and make for good social media posts. It is difficult to learn something while talking.
Good diplomats, like good lawyers and good counselors, know that the best strategy to get the right result begins with asking the right question and ends with truly listening to the response. Such a strategy is particularly important when dealing with a Russian leader who will act out of self-interest first and in his county’s interest second.
Ambassador Huntsman summarized the approach he is taking to the summit by saying, "We're entering with our eyes wide open, but peace is always worth the effort."47 comments on this story
As President Trump prepares for the meeting in Helsinki, he should prepare a host of “eyes wide open” questions. Those questions should not only include specifics about election year meddling, but they also should extend to Russian activities in Syria, infiltrating the borders of Ukraine, and the most recent developments in poisoning diplomats and citizens in the U.K., among other issues.
The ultimate success America needs, including the safety, security and sovereignty of the country, will not be found in bold, brash or braggadocio statements. Leadership and power will ultimately be demonstrated through the strength of the questions asked.