The much awaited summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held in Helsinki on Monday (July 16) has led to a predictable result - surprise and unpredictability - which is in keeping with the Trump track record over the last year.
The Helsinki deliberations that are in the public domain (there is one part that is ‘secret’ and totally one-on-one between the two presidents) have caused dismay, consternation and uncertainty among US allies and partners about the orientation of the world’s most powerful nation in relation to its external interlocutors. The dismay is within the USA.
The most significant Trump policy statement was the assertion that Russia is not an adversary but a competitor – and on occasion a foe. The conjecture that follows is that for this White House incumbent at least, Helsinki 2018 may well mark the formal end of the Cold War, whose seeds were sown in Yalta in February 1945.
An improvement in US-Russia relations is a desirable global objective for the two nations have the largest WMD arsenals and discord between them can have corrosive security implications globally - as for instance in relation to Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and North KoreaC. Uday Bhaskar
However, this may be a premature reduction of the strategic outcome of Helsinki, for President Trump will have to deal with the mounting domestic discord and anger that his Helsinki remarks have triggered within the USA.
An up and down relationship
In the media interaction, the US President appeared to repose more trust in his Russian counterpart than in his own intelligence chief over the allegation that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 US election.
The investigation by the US special prosecutor has been dubbed a political witch hunt by Mr. Trump and he was embarrassingly boastful about his election victory over Hilary Clinton.
The Trump penchant to disparage his political opponents in a foreign land was on full display and he blamed the ‘stupidity’ of his predecessors for the souring of the US-Russia bilateral relations.
Trump’s policy is often filtered through his tweets and in this case, his late night Helsinki tweet read: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” The Russian Foreign Ministry response was swift: “We agree.”
The Helsinki visit was preceded by the Trump tour through Europe where he attended the NATO summit and later met with UK Prime Minister Theresa May. The Trump wrecking-ball was in full throttle and in one visit to Europe, the US President was able to shake the foundations of NATO; humiliate the closest US ally and ‘cousin’ – the UK, and cozy up to the strongman in Moscow.
An improvement in US-Russia relations is a desirable global objective for the two nations have the largest WMD (weapons of mass destruction) arsenals and discord between them can have corrosive security implications globally - as for instance in relation to Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and North Korea.
While President Putin has described his talks at Helsinki as “very successful and useful” – the discerning US citizen will want to know at what cost has this rapprochement been effected? What has the US dealmaker mortgaged?
Domestic opinion in the US is scathing and the more critical comments including that from former CIA chief John Brennan have described the Trump Helsinki performance as ‘treasonous and shameful.’
In a thoughtful assessment of the Helsinki summit, Dov Zakheim, a former Bush cabinet member and a respected columnist noted: “It may be premature to assert that Donald Trump, America’s wrecker-in-chief, is determined to undermine the Western alliance. Yet his behavior throughout his European visit points in that direction. Should he succeed, he will have accomplished what Putin and his Soviet predecessors could only have hoped for in the wildest of their dreams.”
But will the US be able to sustain this Trump policy petulance, where he castigates his allies (Merkel and May) and is almost unctuous to authoritarian leaders (Putin and Xi) among other personal aberrations?
While the security framework is still intact – NATO has not been diluted in the manner that the TPP was – the trade and economic domain will worry corporate USA and adversely impact the US way of life. The US is the world’s largest single-nation economy and its top six export destinations for 2017 were: Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, UK and Germany.
The Trump policy whether over trade tariffs, defense spending or immigration has successfully roiled the bilateral with all these nations – and there are others in the wings. Whether the US and its electorate will subscribe to this ‘America alone’ strategy is moot. There is greater likelihood that the major powers will soon get into a huddle to review their options in a ‘world order minus the USA.’
The US mid-term elections in November will provide an indication of how the world’s oldest democracy will tilt – with the Pied Piper wielding the wrecking-ball? Or will the American voter hew back to a more familiar policy orientation where the commitment to the liberal, democratic, rule-based order is substantively renewed.
For President Putin, Helsinki is the icing on the World Cup cake that Moscow has deservedly earned.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.