With two unpredictable leaders -- Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump -- and their propensity for risk-taking, there's no way to say with certainty what will result from Friday's bilateral summit meeting on the margins of the G-20 economic summit. We're sorely tempted to conclude that the meeting, like the "Seinfeld" episode in which George and Jerry try to sell a TV pilot episode for a show about nothing, will turn out much the same.
But the unique mix of personalities, politics, Trump's seemingly preternatural desire to work some deal with Putin, and now the formal character of the meeting, suggest the possibility of a positive outcome that allows both leaders to claim success without resolving the core issues that divide them.
No one should be fooled by a post-summit communique that sets up working groups to deal with outstanding issues. Fundamental differences between Moscow and Washington on core issues all but guarantee that, at best, this will be a transactional and not transformational moment in the US-Russian relationship.
The world's attention is focused on the intractable North Korean problem, but the Russians have very little to offer there. There is greater basis for optimism in the Middle East, where, at least on paper, Washington and Moscow have some coincidence of interests in combatting ISIS. But even here, Trump is probably overestimating Putin's utility in this endeavor and underestimating the risks of such a partnership.
In the run-up to and for a short time after last November's presidential election, pundits speculated that Trump and Putin might try to strike a grand bargain that would resolve all the global issues dividing them -- European security, cyber warfare, Ukraine, Syria and arms control, to name only a few.
Such hopes, even before "Russiagate" engulfed the Trump administration, were always a pipe dream. Because of a high level of mutual mistrust, conflicting interests, objectives and values, and Putin's domestic need for an American bogeyman to maintain his popular support, it was always foolish, as one prominent expert noted, to "imagine a world in which we suddenly under Trump's watch become partners with Russians either in Ukraine or on issues like Ukraine." It is even crazier to believe that this summit, occurring amid the President's Russia's travails, could yield such a breakthrough.
While a grand bargain between the United States and Russia is an outlandish notion, an arrangement narrowly focused on combating global terrorism in Syria is at least imaginable. After all, at the core of Trump's aspirations for improved US-Russian relations is a coalition with Russia against ISIS to, in his words, "knock the hell out of ISIS."
At one point, Putin had similar visions of a coalition dancing in his head -- for example, last year, he proposed the formation of a "broad international anti-terrorist coalition," not unlike the alliance between the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and other countries that defeated Adolf Hitler in World War II.
Trump's yearning to get Putin into a global coalition to hammer ISIS is well known. Putin would like nothing better than to trade that participation for a lifting of sanctions on Crimea and Ukraine. But while the President seems to have been captivated by the possibility of working with Russia against ISIS, there are several compelling reasons why that partnership has been oversold.
The United States is doing fairly well on its own in depriving ISIS of territory, oil, funding and fighters, both in Syria and Iraq, without Russian help. Indeed, the advantages of consorting with Moscow on counterterrorism have to be weighed against the disadvantages of linking the US campaign to a regime that cares little about causing indiscriminate civilian casualties and the many risks of sharing intelligence with Russia when American and Russian interests in Syria are not aligned.
America's name is blackened enough by its unwillingness to act militarily to remove Assad. Imagine how low Washington's credibility would fall if it partnered with Putin -- enabler of Assad's mass killing. Anyway, Putin has been far more interested in propping up Assad and neutralizing those Syrian opposition elements who want to get rid of him than in seriously fighting ISIS.
Far more consequential for the summit is whether the two leaders will make any headway on joint understandings and action on Syria. Putin has proven that he can manipulate a diplomatic process with the United States -- in this case the UN-sponsored Geneva talks on Syria -- as a cover to carry out Russia's narrow goals. Those goals include securing and expanding bases, blocking another use of American force to remove a regime it doesn't like, elevating Russia's status and keeping Assad in power.
Barack Obama and John Kerry acquiesced in this game largely in hopes of stopping the killing. Can you imagine how vulnerable Trump would be, given his lack of interest in Syria's future or in removing Assad, if he fell for the same gambit?
Putin will look for ways to use Trump's determination to make a deal in order to further legitimize Russia's role as America's senior partner in Syria, and to try to persuade Trump that the best way to stabilize Syria is to work with Russia -- and, by association, Assad. He may even dangle the possibility of clamping down on Assad's use of chemical weapons or a political transition to an Assad-free Syria.
Unlike the issues of Ukraine, Crimea, European security, nuclear weapons and Russian hacking, Syria, under certain circumstances, might actually represent an area of possible cooperation. But for now, a frozen conflict suits Putin well as long as he can manage Trump and continue to ensure that he never gets serious about challenging Assad, let alone trying to remove him. Putin is no fan of the Syrian dictator, whose recklessness has tried his patience on more than one occasion. But for now, Assad is still a useful asset for Moscow.
There may be some deal cut in Hamburg, and the United States could benefit from an outcome in which American and Russian interests are well served. And that's why, in the end, a summit that best serves American interests would not be a summit about something -- a summit where Trump abandons US interests and principles to make a deal -- but one, to paraphrase George and Jerry, about nothing. Indeed, whatever the author of "The Art of the Deal" and self-styled world's greatest negotiator believes, no deal is preferable, by far, to a bad one.