It’s now Trump vs The Western World

US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during an event to celebrate the six-month anniversary of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 29 June 2018. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

President Trump’s Newest Most-Magical Mystery Tour (The UK, Brussels and Helsinki) starts soon, even as his administration is expanding the trade conflict with major partners like China, Europe, Canada & Mexico, while taking continuing fire from the Mueller investigation and his erstwhile fixer Michael Cohen appears to be ready to abandon allegiance to The Donald. The troubled president is once again taking his show on the road, and the consequences could be far reaching.

Oh no, he’s back on tour again. This time, this shameless spectacle takes the US president to Brussels to berate the collective leaders of the country’s Nato allies; then it is on to a working visit with the British government and a weekend in Scotland (golfing, not fishing apparently); and finally there is the grand finale in Helsinki to meet up with his best buddy, Vladimir Putin. Oh dear.

First up, of course, is what has usually been, for decades, a fairly easy, relatively non-contentious opportunity to do some bonding with allies over how best to respond to real or potential threats. And, sometimes, when circumstances permit, these summits can ratify understandings on how to nurture opportunities for a unified response that can build trust across the divide – east and west.

Yes, there have sometimes been serious tensions. Decades earlier, French President Charles de Gaulle insisted on removing his country from the unified command structures of Nato. There was the moment when Greece and Turkey – both Nato members – were on the verge of open warfare over Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus that had followed the attempted merger of Cyprus with Greece by the then-ruling military junta in Athens.

More recently, post-Cold War, Nato energies have increasingly concentrated on finding ways to integrate most of Eastern Europe into Nato structures and modernising overall defence planning, away from the old standard of defending against a Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany through the Fulda Gap.

Recently there has been an effort to create better integrated rapid response forces and command and control structures in the face of renewed Russian pressures on several Nato members and, of course, on Ukraine. Although not a Nato member, the possibility of Ukraine’s virtual dismemberment by a resurgent Russia eager to reassert its direction of its so-called “near abroad”, has, at least until the triumph of the Trumpian narrative, been something that has concentrated the imagination, attention and fears of many alliance members.

Now, of course, the other Nato members are trying to figure out how to respond to a US president who openly argued – during the presidential campaign – that the entire alliance was “obsolete” and that, anyway, most alliance members have shirked their sacred obligation to dedicate 2% or more of GDP to defence. Absent such a change on the part of those shirkers, the US president might even choose to walk away from the alliance entirely.

Coupled with that recent and extraordinarily unpleasant G7 summit – at least for six member leaders – as Donald Trump carried out his global try-out as the top dog in the manger in a forthcoming global passion play, some foreign diplomats have been steeling their respective governments for a similar eruption of bile, truculence, general bad boy behaviour, and stunning tin-ear-ed-ness by the US president. Or worse.

Then it will be a quick flight from Brussels to Britain for a schedule that is, for a sitting president, notoriously and unprecedentedly light on anything approaching the kinds of public embrace, public pomp and ceremony, and broad, deep engagement with the nation usually described as having that “special relationship” with the US. Yes, there will be a rendezvous with the queen; there will be some ceremonial events at Windsor and Blenheim – but there is no speech to parliament or anything approaching a public event in the capital.

However, there will be – pending final police and air traffic controller clearances – a giant balloon in the form of Donald Trump as a diapered baby floating over central London. The London mayor, Saddiq Khan, a man with a highly public grudge match with Trump, has given the float his endorsement, and so one should expect more press coverage of the balloon than of Trump. That is, of course, unless the president manages to give one of his patented verbal take-downs, mean-spirited insults, or retreats into bizarre gibberish in any of his remarks, echoing some of his recent impenetrable campaign-style oratory.

Then, naturally, it will be off to Scotland to – presumably – play some rounds at his privately held golf resort. Failing anything else to report that is newsworthy or noteworthy, reporters may well fall back on speculating who will have accepted invitations to play a round or two with Trump. And, naturally, there will be speculation on who will keep score and thereby allow the president to claim mulligans for every fluffed drive or botched putt until he finishes a round.

After Scotland, there is the main event on 16 July. Helsinki is the capital of Finland and its traditional neutrality during the Cold War has made it a regularly considered spot for East-West summits and negotiations. Vienna or Geneva have probably hosted more of them overall, but Finland’s capital has often been a sentimental favourite for such meetings among devotees of diplomatic geography.

Perhaps this is because of its history as a former territory of imperial Russia for 100 years until independence in 1918, and that it survived World War II largely intact – and outside both the Warsaw Pact and Nato alliances. Also, maybe it is because it is easier to spell, say, than Iceland’s capital city, the site of a crucial head-to-head meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev towards the end of the Cold War.

Rather than coming as the logical moment to tie off negotiations or discussions that have been taking place over contentious or long-running tensions, this particular planned summit has a rather odd texture to it. At least from the perspective of the US president, this summit seems to be just one more effort to show love to his favoured foreign leader (besides Kim Jong-un) – in a sharp, eerie, and very unsettling contrast to the way Trump has treated his G7 interlocutors, neighbouring Western Hemisphere leaders, and – presumably – the Nato nations’ leaders as well.

From the days of the 2016 campaign onward, Trump has amply indicated his deep desire to be more than just friendly with the Russian leader; this has been regardless of any and all provocations; regardless of objective circumstances in the two nations’ bilateral relations; and unhindered by the now-virtually unanimous verdict (save for Trump and for Putin, or so he has told Trump) that various Russian projects by the government or its agents hacked their way through the US election, interfered with the election through the use of the real version of “fake news”, and just generally worked hard to push the electoral result Trump’s way.

Given those items as background, what, conceivably, can Donald Trump hope to gain from this upcoming meeting, besides yet another opportunity to give Putin yet another embrace? We shall come to that in a minute. But first, for Vladimir Putin, the agenda items are obvious and deeply problematic.

First is further reinforcement for the Putin government’s unceasing interest in being respected (and, if possible, feared) by others. Gaining global agreement that it has returned to the old Soviet Union’s former status as one of two global superpowers is a paramount goal. Being treated as one of two go-to powers is pre-eminent. In this line of argument, any ex post facto efforts to reverse the annexation of Crimea, areas of Georgia, and continued support of insurgents in the eastern districts of Ukraine are just part of a larger plan to try to reverse and rerun history.

What’s done is done. Move on”, the Moscow scenario planners might say.

Second, the Putin government clearly wants global acceptance, if not applause, of its goal in Syria in which the government of that unhappy land will remain in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, his immediate military coterie, his Alawite supporters, and the presence of Iranian support and Hezbollah in the mix in Syria as well.

At this point, the goal has moved on from trying to ensure the Assad regime doesn’t fall, to ensuring its overall success in the civil war. Such an outcome serves as a road block on any Saudi (supported by the Israelis and Americans) expectations and ambitions to be the arbiter of events in that part of the world.

Third, Russian goals are to ensure that any nuclear arms reductions in the future are negotiated in a way that its current position is in no way further threatened by American technological superiority.

Moreover, the Putin government will continue to press its claims that anything that points to Russian interference in the past American election (and any other recent elections elsewhere) is just so much nonsense designed to thwart the rightful position of the Russians globally and to inject unnecessary friction into the US-Russian relationship. Concurrently, the Russian leadership may also add further to its most recent criticism of the Trump administration’s trade war rhetoric and new tariffs, but insist that somehow this is all the work of Russia’s traditional enemies in Washington, rather than their good friend and ultra-realist, Donald Trump. Oh, and just by the way, the Russians would certainly like to see the US president realign US policy on oil and natural gas sales such that such sales to Western Europe are freed up from any remaining sanctions.

Similarly, a key goal is to use those arguments to buttress its claims that it is now time to begin rolling back the range of US and European economic and financial sanctions put in place following the Crimea annexation. The Russian leader will obviously want to press the pliant and sadly ahistorical-minded Donald Trump that it is time to move on, end those sanctions and resume normal economic intercourse. They will undoubtedly echo what the US president himself has been caught saying – that it is time for Russia to return to the G7 as a responsible global partner. They will obviously use their successful Soccer World Cup management as part of the message that they are a serious, responsible, mature, adult, trustworthy partner globally, or more succinctly, “What’s not to like with Russia?”

Finally, depending on the way the various Russia probes in the US continue to play out – and if there is any kind of further leak from the Mueller investigation or the Senate Intelligence Committee in the next few days – the Russian leader may be able to make use of one or another of his country’s hooks into the Trumpians to keep the texture of the final joint communiqué unrelentingly upbeat and up-tempo.

Against this, such a comprehensive agenda, what does the US president have on his agenda, beside his crib from Rodney King’s plea, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Sadly, the focus of the Trump administration likely may be to beg for Russian assistance in getting pressure on North Korea to make some progress on that elusive formula for “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearisation” of North Korea that Trump had promised following the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un. Concurrently, but contradictorily, the Trump administration may similarly ask for some help with agenda on Iran of reducing its forces and support for Assad in Syria, and in keeping Iran’s nuclear and missile ambitions in check, despite the fact that this US president took his country out of that equation.

Further, he may ask Putin for some signs of flexibility vis-à-vis Ukraine, for greater interest in nuclear reduction talks, for moderating Russian rhetoric against other Nato allies, and for yet another statement of non-interference in American and other elections, as well as some kind of a demonstration of co-operation with Britain regarding those unnerving nerve agent poisonings in and around Salisbury.

The real problem is that the Trump administration is in office without a strategic vision about what the future US-Russia relationship was supposed to look like, without any sense of the historical basis for how it has evolved until now, and with the team setting policy that was noticeably weak on much more than histrionic posturing on Fox News over international relations.

Columnist and veteran Eastern Europe scholar Anne Applebaum’s judgement of this is:

In both Ukraine and Syria, the situation is extremely odd: The United States – still, in theory, the stronger power – appears to be negotiating to give up quite a lot in exchange for very little. The only explanation for U.S. determination to make a lopsided deal is Trump himself. Perhaps he has learned from his experience negotiating with North Korea: In Singapore he endorsed a dictator, got nothing except unenforceable promises and then came home to a hero’s welcome from Fox News. Or perhaps he still feels he owes something, after all, to the man who helped him win the presidency.”

The danger facing Trump’s counterparts at the Nato meeting is that the Brussels meeting goes badly – that Trump raises Cain over the other members’ defence contributions and threatens to begin actual planning about redeployment of US troops and materiel from Europe. Then, Trump goes to Helsinki and makes nice, nice with Vladimir Putin, as they frame a grand bargain that helps ease the way for America to draw back from Europe, consistent with his initial campaign rhetoric. Once that happens, the other Nato leaders face some very difficult choices.

As The Economist argued this week, in its forebodings over the conjunction of these two summits:

Nato is more fragile than Trump thinks. At its core is the pledge to treat an attack on one member in the North Atlantic region as an attack on them all. His vacillation and his hostility to Europe weakens that promise, if only because it reveals his scorn for the idea that small countries have the same rights as big ones. Asia is watching, as is Mr Putin. The more Mr Trump bullies his allies, the more the world will doubt America’s security guarantees. Because great powers compete in a grey zone between peace and war, that risks miscalculation. Mr Trump believes he is a master negotiator in pursuit of stronger America. With Europe, as with so much else, he gravely undervalues what he is giving up.”

Put this all together and it is clear that Donald Trump appears to be drawing, yet again, from his experiences in the real estate business in Manhattan. That lesson, essentially, is: You can roll the dice and come out on top, especially if you are prepared to take an enormous gamble and believe your opponents will, when it all comes down to it, flinch.

The problem, though, is that he seems to be applying that lesson in dealing with his allies, and embracing the country and its leader who should be seen as the antagonist to be dealt with carefully and thoughtfully as his best buddy. DM


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