July 17, 2018
Russian president Vladimir Putin has been in a benign mood after a perfectly organized World Cup which gave Russians and foreigners the rare freedom to mass in the street. In response the world TV audience has looked at Russia with new eyes. Maybe there’s a new Russia coming to the boil which, if the West could seize the chance, could help the two countries make a pot of very tasty and good tea! Maybe.
The Donald Trump/Vladimir Putin encounter is as convoluted as they come. There seem to be two American policies towards Russia – one led by the president, the second led by his advisers. On nearly every issue, bar two, Trump appears to be more dovish than his Administration. He never criticizes Putin publically.
Trump hasn’t made a great fuss about the Russian presence in Syria, nor its coziness with Iran and China. He hasn’t criticized the crackdown on some leaders of the opposition in Russia. He’s congratulated Putin on winning re-election. He’s taken the word of Putin that his government has had nothing to do with the hacking of the election that partly helped bring Trump to power.
Further, he regularly says NATO is obsolete which implies he doesn’t believe NATO’s expansion up to Russian borders was a good move since it has provoked Russia more than any other single issue. Only on Ukraine and Germany has he taken an anti-Russian line. He’s sent in sophisticated weapons to be used by the Ukrainian army against Russian-supported militias. He’s criticized Germany for depending on Russian gas. But could these latter two moves be smokescreens to provide cover for his overall pro-Russian direction?
Trump, to the dismay of his advisers, the leadership in Congress, the intelligence services and significant parts of the press and academia, has taken his own path. They’ve raised the alarm about Trump’s unilateral behavior in insisting in meeting Putin one to one with no one else in the room, apart from two interpreters.
Was Putin dangling Trump like a marionette? Has Putin got the goods on Trump from the days long ago when, while organizing the Miss World beauty contest in Moscow, Trump hired prostitutes and was filmed in bed with them? Has Putin also got inside knowledge of the shady part of Trump’s property dealing in Russia?
Maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t. The fact is, as I’ve argued long before either Obama or Trump came to power, the supposed unilateral policies by Trump are the right ones.
It’s all rather bizarre. Trump is the elected president of America: Isn’t he the boss in foreign affairs, as is customary? Can’t he impose his will? Can’t he fire the advisers who try to fashion an alternative, neo-conservative, hardline, foreign policy and replace them with those who are sympathetic with his policies – like the Harvard professor of international affairs, Stephen Walt, who is about to publish a scathing attack on the “Blob” in his new book, “The Hell of Good Intentions”?
Is Trump intimidated by this “Blob”, the marvelous word dreamt up by Ben Rhodes, Obama’s chief speechwriter, to describe the foreign policy establishment? Is he held back by knowing that the FBI and the special counsel have got the goods on him too – on his under-the-counter business ties with Russia?
After all during his campaign he did make a speech advocating that Russia should break into his opponent, Hilary Clinton’s e-mail.
We don’t yet know the answer to these questions. But we do know from the well-informed Walt that there is a strong case for supporting Trump’s foreign policy while scorning his erratic behavior, his lies (as recently in London), his misogynistic and racist behavior, his treatment of the arrested migrant children and his policies on climate change and the environment etc. etc.
Walt argues that since the end of the Cold War successive Administrations have embraced a policy of “liberal hegemony” and that it has been a costly failure. The populace has not supported it but the “Blob” has.
Foreign policy types, if they admit it and some have, have felt pressured to conform for fear of losing status and authority. It has cost the US a lot, not least in unnecessary foreign wars. Walt and we, the people, wait to see what Trump will do to defeat their influence.
Copyright: Jonathan Power.
* Correction by the author after publication
I apologise if I have inadvertently cast Stephen Walt as a supporter of Trump’s foreign policy. He is not, but also is he not a supporter of the foreign policy of the presidents who preceded Trump.