Donald Goes East: Days of TrumPutin

Okay, he’s had his brief holiday, avoiding Donald Trump’s adventures in President-land, and writing about interesting books and CDs. But now J. BROOKS SPECTOR must again turn his full attention to some upcoming meetings for the “Orange Brawler” with numerous other world leaders in both Warsaw and Hamburg.

As this is being written, American President Donald Trump is aboard Air Force One, winging his way eastward, first, to Warsaw, Poland, and then on to Hamburg, Germany for the G-20 leaders’ meeting. First, on Thursday, in Poland, Trump is scheduled to attend a meeting of the so-called “Three Seas” nations, eastern and southern European countries that are Nato members and are located geographically between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. In addition to that session, he is supposed to deliver a presidential-style public speech in the historic square in Warsaw where the 1944 uprising against Nazi occupation is said to have begun.

For a trip that would be a snap, a piece of cake, a walk in the park, a clever fandango, just a quick waltz around the ballroom for a president steeped in the knowledge of history and the intricacies of international economics. At such gatherings, despite any disagreements, the participants usually reaffirm their support for peace, friendship, greater measures towards open/free/fair trade, the peaceful resolution of international disputes, and the importance of greater international co-operation generally. However, this short trip now offers opportunities that are seriously pregnant with meaning, as well as more than a little fear and trembling unto the darkness. Or, to put it yet another way, never have so many owed so much to a person who knows so little and understands even less. (Apologies, Winston, apologies.)

In Warsaw, Donald Trump’s meeting with the assembled leaders has the possibility to intensify fear rather than offer reassurance – or at the minimum add to considerable confusion. If he does the same dance around the Nato Charter’s Article 5 (the bit that speaks to collective security and coming to the aid of threatened or attacked member states) that he did in his first meeting with Nato allies, there are going to be some seriously nervous and unnerved people in that room.

The dilemma for Trump is that, given his continuing love affair with the idea of a warm embrace between Vladimir Putin and himself, such expressions would have a particularly unsettling impact on nations like the three Baltic lands as well as some of the others, such as meeting host Poland, given its long-time feelings about Russia/USSR. Moreover, any apparent effort to bargain away a total commitment to the restoration of Ukraine’s complete territorial sovereignty and the withdrawal of Russian forces operating in mufti from the eastern part of that nation (even though Ukraine is not a Nato member, to be sure) as part of the Putin-Trump meeting the next day, may give some of the leaders assembled in Warsaw sudden heart arrhythmias.

Of course, Trump may also choose to use this moment to chastise the assembled leaders of those nations whose defence budgets are not yet at the recommended Nato level of commitment of funds for national (and alliance) defence spending. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s wielded that particular whip and it left some really bad tastes in the mouths of those who heard him the first time.

But there are more possibilities for stumbles. The current government and ruling party in Poland has taken on an increasingly autocratic temperament since the last election. Seemingly, it is inching its way towards the kind of authoritarian government (as in Turkey, Egypt, and, yes, Russia) that Trump has already demonstrated a love for – and maybe a tinge of envy over. The Polish government and ruling party has been attacking independent journalism, errant civil society organisations and institutions, and putting pressure on the structures of an independent judiciary. And it is muttering threats of yet more restrictions, if the human rights/civil rights elements of society don’t rally around the flag and come to the party. A less than ringing defence of western core democratic principles in his meetings with Polish leaders and in his remarks in public would seem certain to generate a sour taste in the mouths of many, even before Trump reaches the trip’s main event in Hamburg, Germany.

In Hamburg, Trump is almost certain to have some vivid verbal fisticuffs with the other leaders over – no surprises here – climate and environmental issues, and trade liberalisation and economic globalisation. Since Syria won’t be in attendance at the Hamburg meeting, President Trump will be totally alone in his opposition to the Paris Climate Accord. (Okay, Nicaragua didn’t sign it either, but they wanted a stronger agreement, not a weaker one.) And host Chancellor Angela Merkel has already refused to hold back in her criticism of the US position on the climate accord and the “America first” chant offered up by the US under Donald Trump’s administration, as well as his threats of some sort of unspecified retaliation for Germany’s voluminous exports to America. His case in point seems to have been the large number of German luxury sedans on American highways, and the lack of Cadillacs on the autobahns (forgetting, perhaps, that Germans already manufacture some of these cars, especially Beamers, in America, hiring thousands of US workers in the process).

Meanwhile, while the Donald insists on muttering about retaliatory import tariffs and further measures to restrict trade, as well as exiting stage right from the US-sponsored TransPacific Partnership (opening the door for greater participation by other nations in Chinese plans such as a major new trade/transport initiative as well as a Chinese international infrastructure investment bank), the EU nations and Japan move towards further trade liberalisation measures. And they are doing it, pointedly, without American participation. While leaders like Merkel and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron keep up an interest in economic globalisation measures, the US is now turning its back on some 70 years of the very institutions of financial and economic liberalisation America was instrumental in giving life to in the first place.

Moreover, it is almost certain Donald Trump will take flak for things like the US’s recent announcement that it will be cutting half a billion dollars of support for UN peacekeeping measures, an amount more than 20% of the total UN budget for such efforts. Such decisions are a tangible demonstration of how inward-turning America’s foreign engagement in an extremely difficult world has become, with open conflicts in a number of places, a vast flood of refugees and migrants in many spots, and a list of very uneasy, tenuous peacekeeping efforts in a number of other nations.

And then there is an upcoming meeting with Vladimir Putin, taking place in the shadow of the G-20 meeting. Originally, it was to be a sort of semi-secret passing in the hallway with a brief exchange of: “Hello, how are you? Fine, and you?”, marking the occasion when they will have first met. This, of course, will be their first meeting, but only if you ignore all the times Trump has said that they had already met, hadn’t met, had, hadn’t. Anyway, a more formal leader-to-leader meeting like this one now means there will be a written agenda, rather than the idea that the two men would just wing it in the hallway. Now there will be a full complement of staff aides and note takers. The table will be decorated with the two flags, and kitted out with flasks of juice, bottled water and special mints and little bouquets of seasonal flowers.

If one listens to the comments now being offered about this just-scheduled meeting, the two topics sure to be on the agenda are the dire situations in Syria and Ukraine. But not, crucially, will the Russian meddling in the American election – or in any other western nation – be on the agenda, if the initial reports are accurate. Of course the really big, really hairy elephant in the room – the situation with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme – will similarly not be part of the Putin-Trump chat, apparently.

Still, such a topic might conceivably come up in the G-20 session itself, given South Korea, Japan, and China’s participation in that meeting – and their obvious interest in North Korea and its missiles and nukes. For his part, Donald Trump has repeatedly huffed and puffed that China should have been able to have solved this thing (for the US) in a New York minute, if it had really wanted to do so. Or, alternatively, he has also said that the US would do it solo anyway, if China would not man up. Easy-peasy. (Trump had campaigned in 2016 that it was then-President Obama’s fault for not sorting things out properly with a metaphorical snap of the fingers.) But, after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this year, Trump had gushed that Xi was a really solid citizen and that he, Xi, had educated Trump a bit on the real-life complexities of using Chinese pressure on North Korea and its mercurial leader.

Considering this tangle, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday,

North Korea has repeatedly tested Trump’s resolve during the intervening three months and not suffered any discernible consequences. During a joint statement in the Rose Garden last Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump reiterated the talking point: ‘The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed.’ He added that he wants ‘peace, stability and prosperity’ for the region but said ambiguously that the U.S. will ‘always’ defend itself and its allies.

Last week, the Trump administration put in place sanctions on a China-based bank accused of laundering money for the North Korean government. In a statement over the holiday weekend, the White House also implicitly threatened to reassert U.S. complaints about Chinese economic practices that Trump has largely set aside in recent months as he has sought to engage Xi.

While China pledges co-operation with the United States over North Korea, Beijing has not fundamentally shifted away from a strategy that balances pressure on the Kim regime with keeping the regime afloat, said Chris Steinitz, a research scientist at the federally funded, non-profit Center for Naval Analyses. ‘It’s kind of how China looks at everything. They have a very long view.… They will wait. They will bide their time. They have a lot of priorities.’

Don’t forget that the U.S.-Sino relationship involves far more than North Korea: China yesterday vowed to step up its air and sea patrols after a U.S. warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea, and last week the United States announced a new arms deal with Taiwan. The bromance is over,’ [said] Evan Medeiros, a former adviser to Obama on Asia policy…. ‘The honeymoon is clearly over, but the next phase is less clear.’ ”

Given all these questions and conundrums, relative to North Korea and its march towards nuclear missile capabilities, the problem is that there is no obvious, immediate “solution” to hand – unless one wants to look down the long barrels of some M-1 A-1 Abrams tanks, along with all the other military hardware on standby on the Korean Peninsula and the naval forces that could be sent to positions off that peninsula to intimidate Kim Jong-un. However, a unilateral military “solution” from the US almost certainly would provoke massive destruction by North Korean conventional artillery unleashed from across the demilitarised zone, into the vast urban conurbation of greater Seoul, not to mention the unpredictable nature of responses by China and Russia, North Korea’s two land neighbours, to all this potential carnage.

Meanwhile, the Qatar vs Egypt, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia imbroglio continues unabated, especially as Qatar appears to have brushed off the list of demands in the demarche that was delivered earlier by that Middle Eastern “gang of four” nations. This mess, of course, is something of an own goal from the messiness of Trump’s foreign policy adventures. In his recent Saudi trip, he evidently gave the Saudis a kind of go-ahead to confront Qatar (and, implicitly its Shia friend, Iran) over informal support by Qatari sources for non-state, non-traditional terror groups operating in the region. Of course, there was no concomitant commitment for the Saudis to shut down their own informal funding from within their own state.

However, a confrontation with Qatar bolstered the Saudi strategy of confronting Iranian efforts supporting Hezbollah around town and tipping the larger regional balance Saudi Arabia’s way again, after the opening that had been provided Iran from the P5+1 nuclear accord to ramp up its engagement in the region – or rejoin the world, depending on your view.

But don’t look for much joy on the Qatar front from the G-20 meeting, even though the Germans have tried to be intermediaries on this issue. For the most part, other nations will cluck their tongues and point out, sotto voce, that none of this would now be happening if Trump hadn’t egged on the Saudis so much or kept threatening to renege on the Iran nuclear accord.

Meetings and events such as the ones scheduled in Warsaw and Hamburg over the next couple of days should, ordinarily, be part of the normal run of diplomatic discussion, not challenges to global equanimity – even when there are significant disagreements between nations. But with Donald Trump now at the helm of American policy (and with the able pot stirring assistance of a veteran of such things as is Vladimir Putin), one simply doesn’t know what will happen. And when. Or, with whom. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump (R) and First Lady Melania Trump (L) wave after arriving at Okecie Airport in Warsaw, Poland, 05 July 2017. US President Donald J. Trump is on a two-day visit in Poland. He will meet Polish President Andrzej Duda as well as speak to the leaders of Three Seas Initiative nations and address the Polish people at Warsaw’s Krasinski Square. EPA/Pawel Supernak