There are four basic strategies that other governments have followed. All are predicated on the understanding that they are faced with a clinical narcissist of the malignant variety – impulsive and compulsive - whose assemblage of aides does not provide stabilizing ballast. Rex Tillerson has proven himself repeatedly to be largely ignorant of the world beyond fossil fuels and a poor organizational manager as well. After nine months in office, he is unable to differentiate between Iranian militias and Iraqi militias, ignoring State department professionals while reducing the institution to a shambles. The triplet of Generals in key positions are demonstrably men of limited intellect, parochial perspectives formed by decades in the Pentagon, strangers to strategy, and politically obtuse (especially Chief of Staff John F. Kelly). Then there is the wild card: Jared Kushner. Most influential of all Trump’s advisors, he is as dense, presumptuous and uninformed as his father-in-law. Moreover, his thinking is shaped by close family and ideological ties to Bibi Netanyahu. The off-stage voice of Steve Bannon adds to the dissonance.
As others grope for a strategic response, we are beginning to see the vague outlines of types of approaches being taken by foreign governments.
1. Clear & Hold
The first is predicated on the proposition that Trump’s mind is vacant – rather than being simply terra incognita to be explored; therefore, let’s try to colonize it. This in effect is the approach taken by Bibi Netanyahu and Mohammed bin-Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and power behind the throne in Riyadh. Each hurried to Washington, elbowing his way to the head of the queue with the intention of imprinting on Trump’s brain their preferred cognitive map of the world – most especially the Middle East. The principal features that they worked at etching on his grey matter were these: Israel/Saudi Arabia is your trustworthy ally who is the key to bringing order to the region in a way that will protect the United States. Israel (Saudi Arabia) had proven itself trustworthy and dedicated over the decades. We are anchors of stability in an unruly Middle East. That is why we were offended by the shabby treatment we received from Barack Obama. No gratitude or understanding of our vulnerable position. We are under threat from an aggressive Iran above all. Those diabolical mullahs have mounted campaigns against America as well as us on every front: Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Libya They are surrounding us. Yet, Obama coddled the mullahs. He let them off the hook with that weak nuclear deal and his repeated appeals for dialogue. That’s outright appeasement.
The focal points are nicely chosen. Trump has made a major issue of the “catastrophic” nuclear treaty – threatening to rescind it. He’s tightening the screws on sanctions. Iran is his G-spot on all matters Middle Eastern. It inflames the nerve ends still quivering from the recurrent stimulation of terrorism. Linking the two has been recurrent method for playing on the taut strings of the American body politic.
For the Israelis and Saudis, this point of concentration provides a beachhead onto the Trumpian mind that can flare out to other sensitive spots already identified: Russia, unleashing the American military to conform to his chest-thumping rhetoric – e.g. the Tomahawk attacks in Syria, and feeding the national appetite for violent action. The fact that Jerusalem and Riyadh are working in tandem these days adds a nice synergistic touch to the campaign.
Trump craves adulation and the trappings of celebrity. In this, he is like all clinical narcissists. His pleasures at being lauded in grandiose ceremony far outweigh the satisfaction of any policy objective. Conviction is not his thing; everything is infinitely malleable to satisfy the omnivorous needs of the sacred, exalted self. This truth quickly became evident to the powers-that-be in Riyadh, Beijing, Tokyo and, of course, Jerusalem. Leaders there went overboard in playing to Trump’s juvenile craving for pomp and circumstance. From “fabulous” red carpets to 17 course banquets, to exotic rituals.
The last was epitomized by the two-act theatre choreographed by the Saudis in Riyadh. First, they enticed the Big O to joining their servants (the coffee servers) in a traditional sword dance. The image carried across the Islamic world was that the President of the United States showing obeisance to the Royal family. That symbolic act was followed by the “laying on of hands” whereby Trump – together with the Crown Prince and President Sisi -placed their hands on the magic orb representing the Islamic ummah. He, thereby, ritually signed on to the Sunni declaration of dominance over all Muslims, and especially the heretic Shi’a. Trump was enthralled by this hocus-pocus; all it lacked was a secret handshake. Even Barack Hussein Obama had not been granted such privileged status. Enrolling the U.S. in the 1,400 year civil war between the two sects has profound implications which neither the White House nor the ever dense American media understood.
If they had had an inkling of what was going on, they would not be surprised that Washington now is a loyal backer of whatever outrages the current Saudi leadership commits; inter alia, atrocities in Yemen, virtual declaration of war against Qatar where the U.S. has two critical military bases; the seizure and sequestering of two Arab heads of state – Hariri of Lebanon, Hadi of (part of) Yemen; the imprisonment and shake-down of hundreds of the KSA’s political and financial elite. Trump has given his blessing to all of these actions – explicitly or by silence. Thereby, Mohammed bin-Salman of tyrannical ambition has achieved a measure of American subservience matched only by the Israeli accomplishment – and has done so without any of the latter’s unique leverage. It should be acknowledged the foundations for this bizarre alignment were laid by Barack Obama. However, they were sealed and delivered by the clever Saudi strategy of playing Trump for the needy adolescent that he is.
A second approach emphasizes nimbleness and improvisation. Its point of departure is recognition that there is no way of knowing what will emanate from the White House since Trump himself doesn’t know. Its inner workings evoke images of the Marx Brothers in A Night At The Opera. Contingency planning doesn’t amount to much when the impulsive leader-of-the-free world shifts tack at the flick of a tweet. Nimbleness and improvisation are the order of the day. (Albeit, the dedication to blessing pretty much anything the Israelis and Saudi conjure up does provide a few more-or-less fixed points of reference. Even there, tactics and public statements constantly intrude to disrupt any policy line – as do contradictory declarations by Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, Kelly and Kushner.
Coping strategies for managing in the ensuing environment of high uncertainty come down to three options. One is to disengage. Since one can’t figure out what is happening, and certainly have no idea as to what might happen tomorrow, avoidance is the safest course of non-action. So, run and hide in the storm cellar. A lunatic is on the loose. Of course, some governments will find that easier than others. Vanuatu and Lesotho are essentially bystanders to world events. Control over their own fate is minimal in the best of times. So, their diplomats can just chill out – amuse themselves perusing The New York Times’ funny pages while sipping a cappuccino. Some others don’t have that luxury &/or will not admit to themselves that functionally they are little different from the micro states. Western Europeans and Japan fall into this category.
In theory, they could follow the other two methods for dealing with their Trump predicament whose hallmarks are tumult and turbulence. Increase your ability to foresee by acquiring better access to information OR process more effectively the information you have. The former is precluded by the mental vacuity noted earlier. The latter is liable to result in the stripping of mental gears as the intellectual machine cannot operate without lubricating oil and the nourishment of information. The last alternative is to gain more leverage over policy-making in Washington. However, it is unrealistic to attempt an imitation of the Israelis or Saudis. No other governments have the access, the status or the tools to insert themselves into the turbid world of Trump and his White House. In truth, they don’t have the audacity either.
The ascendancy of Donald Trump, effect and cause of a fundamental deformation in the American body politic, has put European leaders to the test. Shocked and amazed, at first many instinctively realized that the time had come for Europeans to get their act together. To take their own counsel. To secure their interests by their own means. To view Washington with a jaundiced eye. Chancellor Merkel said as much. Others silently nodded their heads approvingly. Among political elites of the more thoughtful variety, the same conclusion was being reached – especially in Germany. That new-found awareness and seeming resolution was matched in public opinion. Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from the Paris Climate pact provided the exclamation point to the conviction that the danger was real and perhaps imminent that the emerging world order was being jeopardized by the erratic, emotionally unstable man in the White House and his manifestly aberrant administration.
The situation of the Europeans is complicated by the awkwardness of having to maneuver simultaneously as national governments and as participants in the institutional mechanism of the European Union. The EU is both an opportunity to augment power through concertation and a readily available device for avoiding taking risky actions. The latter invariably prevails in relations with the overweening United States. The Europeans do a few things extremely well: talking and holding meetings. The instinctive, habitual response to crisis or challenge is to add to the already weighty meeting schedule and to form task forces. In these activities, they surpass even the practices of American universities – no small feat. As one Old World cynic has wearily opined: “the Americans fight pointless wars; we hold pointless meetings. Who’s the wiser?” Consequently,, European governments (and likewise Japan for some similar and some different reasons)have been largely inert in front of the Trump dilemma.
Ms May did dash to Washington (actually beating out both Netanyahu and MBS) to ingratiate herself with the new jefe in the White House. Her keenness to declare herself the leading member of the big O’s groupie gang was animated by the fanciful idea that the U.S. somehow could save her and Britain from the full consequences of the Brexit folly. Other European leaders have made tentative forays. Macron periodically offers himself as patient counselor ready to disagree today, conciliatory tomorrow. The steadying influence of the 39 year old neophyte? He also makes know his readiness to mediate between Washington and whomever. Nobody in the Trump White House takes him seriously – not matter how admiring they are of the grand show he put on last Bastille Day.
As for Angela Merkel, the MSM’s designated leader of Europe less than a year ago, the German Chancellor finds herself baffled by the kaleidoscopic display of incoherence emanating from Washington. Now, weakened by electoral losses and the challenge of putting together a heteroclite coalition, she has drawn inward. All the others at first held back until they could summon the courage to come within reach of his grasp and expect to return safely home.. The brave talk early on has evaporated.
Surpassing even Syria as a combustible problem, and with grave implications, is Ukraine. Let’s recall the background. Here, there were discernible differences between the major Western European powers and the U.S. even under Obama. While condemnation of Putin’s annexation of Crimea was shared, Merkel and Hollande were equivocal about moving toward a confrontation with Russia. (Even more uneasy was former Premier Matteo Renzi of Italy). They dragged their heels over full spectrum sanctions, and lent mainly silent support to the NATO build-up that brought Western forces to the Russian border. Most important, the pair took the initiative in brokering the Minsk I and Minsk II accords that sought to lay the basis for a Russo-Ukrainian peaceful freezing of the crisis. It has been the Petro Poroshenko government in Kiev that has stymied the plan by its failure to meet any of the main conditions regarding: constitutional changes, disengagement of troops, and planned referenda. The Obama administration refusal to pressure Kiev emboldened Poroshenko who anyway has been under enormous pressure from the ultra-nationalists who hold his fragile government hostage.
Merkel and Hollande issued a few tame words of concern and then abandoned the diplomatic field to Washington. They also began to echo the American denouncement of Putin as a reckless adventurer and threat to continental peace. When Trump briefly shifted the rhetorical accents re. both the man and the country, neither jumped in to second him or to encourage him. Hence, as his administration has moved the U.S. back into a more hostile position, they have kept the same low profile. Of course, there were other factors in the equation: elections were on tap in both countries, the immigration crisis sucked up all the political oxygen, and terrorism had taken over the headlines. Hollande soon was on the way to oblivion, and Merkel vulnerable. Yet, the bellicosity of the Trump people was heightening the sense of crisis. Plans were laid for large deliveries of sophisticated weapons, American ‘advisory’ teams were deployed, and rhetoric raised a few decibels. The West Europeans were paralyzed – all they could do was to follow Trump zombie-like.
No longer is there an underlying confidence that Europe can muddle through three more years of Trump without fear of major, and possibly lasting, disruptions to the relationship. Nor is there faith that Trump, when the stakes are high, will listen to what his supposedly “grown-up” advisers and partners tell him.
The anxiety is especially acute in Germany, whose own identity is anchored in its relationship with the United States and whose reliance on Washington, particularly in defense and security matters, runs deeper than that of France or even Britain.
“There is a sense of desperation in Berlin, a sense that Trump does not know what is at stake, that he doesn’t understand the historical factors that are at play here,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington and chairman of the Munich Security Conference. “The transatlantic relationship is all about trust. In that sense, the Iran decision takes us to a new level. It is a breach of trust.”
Merkel, and her colleagues, have no answer for this dilemma. That has led a significant segment of Germany’s foreign policy community to make a public appeal in DIE ZEIT for a strategy of appeasement – active appeasement whereby all German (European) criticism of Trump’s antics is stilled, fulsome support offered, and prayers sent Heavenward for a relief from the plagues. The authors declare their greatest fear to be estrangement from Washington leading to isolationism that leaves Europe on its own unable to handle its security in a threatening environment – Russia, terrorism, et al.
Among the several intersecting reasons for the Europeans’ absence of political will, and consequent irresponsibility, there is one of cardinal importance which indeed is ignored and meets with indifference. That is Europe’s unnatural dependence on the United States. Rooted in the post-war experience, it has been perpetuated into another era under vastly different circumstances. Objective factors cannot explain it. Psychological ones are at the heart of the matter. There is compelling evidence, and a powerful situational logic, to support the contention that it is the denaturing of European political elites through so protracted a subordination to, and reliance on America which explains the continent’s drift and ineffectualness.
The failure to follow up on Minsk II set the Western Europeans on the slippery slope whereby they became full protagonists in the Cold War spearheaded by Washington. Does America depict Putin in diabolical terms as the leader of an aggressive Russia threatening the European status quo? Allied leaders nod their heads. Does America insist on a forward deployment of NATO forces right up to the Russian border in violation of agreements dating from 1991? They join in. Does America vilify the Kremlin for supporting the sovereign government of Syria in fighting what has become an al-Qaeda/ISIS directed insurrection? They echo that sentiment. Does the American political establishment work itself into a lather over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election even though there is not a single bit of hard evidence to support the assertion (and despite critiques by former highly placed Intelligence officers showing that the charges are contradicted by technical evidence)? Politicos in Paris, Berlin, London, the Hague and elsewhere let fly with similar unsubstantiated allegations concerning elections in their countries in some bizarre act of solidarity. Does America take drastic steps to isolate Russia economically and diplomatically? They passively go along. Does America impose sanctions on third parties who engage in commercial dealings with Russia? Well, here they demur because their companies play a key role in the NordStream energy project vital to their economic needs – but they absolutely will not call into question the underlying premises that justify Washington’s actions.
The key question to ask is whether Western European governments have made independent assessments of their interests, of Russian intentions, of strategic alternatives to reach a conclusion that dovetails with the American viewpoint – or, have they suspended critical analysis and autonomous judgment due to an inability to think and act contrary to the United States?
IRAN is the one place in the Middle East where there is some divergence between the current American line and the predominant European orientation. And it is there that the potential exists for a Euro-American schism. The latter see the nuclear accord with Tehran as a positive development whose abrogation would create a dangerous risk of confrontation. Logically, that should lead them to criticize Trump’s ratcheting up the sanctions pressure on Iran while indulging in hostile rhetoric. There have been expressions of concern by some continental governments and the European foreign policy chiefFederica Mogherini. However, they have been indirect and by pantomime. That is to say, they take the form of affirmations that the JCPOA retains its value in constraining Iran, and that there is no feasible alternative. Pointed criticism of provocative declarations by Washington are studiously avoided. As for Great Britain, Prime minister May had this to say while meeting with GCC leaders in Bahrain in December: the Iran deal was “vitally important for regional security, but we must also work together to push back against their aggressive regional actions whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria or in the Gulf itself.”
Mogherini went further than May, writing that she was charged by the EU’s 28 foreign ministers to explore “ways in which the EU could actively promote a more cooperative regional framework” with Tehran. She also pointed out the key role of the JCPOA in enabling the expansion of topics discussed bilaterally with Iran — a development made possible because of Euro’s “long tradition of cultural and economic relationship with Iran.”
Yet, nothing substantial came of these stated good intentions. The reason is simple. European governments were not prepared to buck the United States when it came to the basics of Syria, Yemen, Palestine or Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in the Gulf. But it is proving a test that they cannot evade. In October, Trump declared officially that Iran was not incompliance with the JPCOA – although stopping short of abrogating the treaty. Instead, he has left it to Congress to determine what action to take. At this juncture, it is on the verge of imposing severe economic sanctions. They are not linked explicitly to Iran’s alleged non-compliance with the nuclear accord. Functionally, they might as well be.
The overriding issue for the Europeans is whether the legislation will revive the extraterritorial feature if previous sanctions whereby the actions of third parties governments and their companies will be held accountable for any contravention of the sanctions. Any such move will stick in the caw of the Europeans. Western European leaders have stated that they would find such action unacceptable. Mogherini has gone a step further in pledging that any attempt to punish European parties will meet with retaliation. It certainly will be in their power to do so. However, that threat may not deter the Americans. And it is in anticipation of Washington taking punitive action that European banks and businesses might well be dissuaded themselves from making deals with the Iranians. What we have is a game of chicken. The Europeans always have shied away from playing that game with Washington. The one exception was the natural gas pipeline dispute in the early 1980s at the time of the Reagan administration, which they won.
Why have European leaders been so inhibited? For one thing, no European leader can bear to contemplate the consequences of provoking a President whom they now recognize as being emotionally unstable. That gives reinforces their pre-existing deferential instincts. Moreover, they had boxed themselves into a corner politically in the wake of the nuclear accord by joining President Obama in a relentless verbal attack that continued to paint Iran in the darkest possible colors. Its leaders were depicted as innately hostile to the West and committed to aggressively challenging its interests across the Middle East. This ‘compensation’ paid hawks at home and Sunni leaders in the Gulf has made it all the harder to justify a strategy of engagement with the Islamic Republic. While that language has been muted in recent months so as not to present to Iranians with what appears as an implacably hostile Western bloc, there still is not challenge to the strategic picture as drawn by the United States.
There is a paramount truth that Europeans must face squarely, and overcome, if they are to exercise influence in Washington commensurate to their weight and interests in world affairs. The reality is that they are not taken seriously by most in the highest American policy circles. This has been true for some time. Their views are disparaged and their loyalty is taken for granted – for the most part. The fierce, near hysterical reaction to French (mainly) and German opposition to the invasion of Iraq is indicative of this attitude. Only on matters that involve Europe directly and immediately do Washington policy-makers acknowledge a European voice, e.g. Ukraine and Russia. Even in this case, it has been government leaders’ aligning themselves with the dominant faction in the American administration that is most valued. It will be a rough passage, requiring as yet unseen political will, to break that entrenched reality.
The Turks exemplify a strategy of improvisation. Erdogan, is as erratic and feckless as Trump has taken his own irregular course. He does know what he wants – but he can’t get there without squaring circles and fitting square pegs into round holes. Hence, tactics are constantly changing. The Sultan’s ambition has been to create a facsimile of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. That means grabbing the northern part of Syria along with Mosul in Iraq while being acknowledged as the Guide by the Sunni Arabs. Toward that fantastic end, he has encouraged and succored the Takfiris: both ISIS and al-Qaeda/al-Nusra & Assoc. They could not have organized and sustained themselves as they have without crucial Turkish support on Turkish territory. The parlous scheme totally unraveled when the Russians entered the fray.
Erdogan still wants to be the power broker in post-war Syria. And above all, he is desperate to block the Kurds’ move to dominate the Syrian-Turkish borderlands. A weakening hand means that he constantly comes up with new maneuvers – trying to play all parties. To date, his greatest accomplishment is to alienate just about everyone and to isolate Turkey. What does that imply for Erdogan’s approach toward Trump?
Erdogan gives the impression of being so puzzled by Trump that he has given up any effort to discern the White House’s plans or to anticipate its actions. Anyway, so wrapped is he in his own convoluted strategizing that he finds it hard, if not unnatural, to take the bearings of another statesman – even a sober one. That is evident in his erratic dealings with Putin, the Iranians, the Saudis, and the ISIS leadership who are now as much threat as surrogate. In other words, an implicit abstention from clever machinations aimed at influencing Trump’s attitudes. Instead, he will press ahead with his own initiatives regardless – even if that risks conflict with Washington.
The Chinese leaders are dexterous. That was evident at Xi’s meeting with Trump in Florida. Unlike many others (in the U.S. and abroad), the Chinese seem to have understood that Trump bombast was a sign of immaturity. (As evinced by his party trick of employing a chocolate cake to highlight the Tomahawk attack in Syria). They are aware that he is allergic to hard thinking. They know that his narcissistic ego prevents him from relying on truly able people to whom he might cede authority. To them, he is the quintessential barbarian – the kind of barbarian they’ve been handling for more than 2,000 years. A Yi with nuclear weapons.
They set out to play in and on his mind and emotions. Not in the blunt manner of Netanyahu and MBS. Their approach would be more subtle. Honor him by sharing things that a man of his strength and power should know: e.g. Korean history a la Chinoise. Humor him but don’t defer to him. Habituate him to the mores of mutual respect. Don’t make threats, or even issue prophecies; rather nudge him toward the apprehension of wisdom that he believes is his own revelation. Massage his dispositions and inclinations rather than instruct – knowing all along who will earn the Mandate of Heaven. For Trump marks the ordained descent of the United States.
Xi, and his colleagues, doubtless realized as well that Trump was sensitive to inter-personal dynamics – not exchange or empathy, but attune to vibes, especially his own. Their first meeting in Mar-a-Lago was likely not viewed as a sounding out. That supposes that the other party (Trump) had purpose, aims and plans; maybe a semblance of a philosophy of how the world works. By then, it was obvious that Trump possessed none of these attributes. He was incapable of anything that approximated serious thought. So, Xi probably understood the encounter as a ”feeling out” in the sense that he sought to create a certain impression that would trigger desired vibes. The main one would be eclipsing the disposition to see China as a dangerous rival, a hostile entity that cheated the United States of its rightful due. Trump’s greatest vulnerability is his craving to be liked, a need concealed by his habitual bluster. The more formidable the person, someone who could not be bullied or intimidated, the more acute the need. Guided by this insight, Xi’s task was easy.
It was a piece of cake. Geniality. Attentiveness to Trump’s gestures. Observing the unspoken notes registered on his face. Indulging his whims – the triple chocolate cake ceremony. Everything that could lead to a subliminal bonding. Meanwhile, Xi elided specific points of dispute on matters of trade and investment and intellectual property. Affirmations of goodwill substituted for bargaining. The performance was punctuated with a few gifts that Trump to use to confirm his self-image as master of the art of the deal (subconsciously) and to advertise his success to his gullible compatriots (calculatingly). The gifts took the form of actions already in the pipeline: China’s financial participation in American infrastructure projects being the big headline item. Spread over 25 years, it would do nothing to upgrade service on NYC’s dilapidated subways or to quench the thirst of Los Angelinos for Northern California water. If anyone out there did make such an unthinking connection (in the absence of any critical reporting), so much the better.
Trump’s return visit to Beijing in November sealed the deal. Topping the list of gestures was the mother of all ego massages. The Chinese went heavy on the pomp and circumstance. Nothing like this had been seen since Pompey’s Triumph in Rome upon his return from the East*. All that it lacked was a 100 foot marble column. (A la Trajan). The red carpet was posh and of Olympian length. The banquet lavish; one Trump aide boasted that it had 16 courses while Obama’s had only 13 – although the President reportedly stuck to the hamburger diet on which he had insisted throughout his Cook’s Tour of Asia. Xi, assisted by a Hollywood scale extravaganza of Chinese notables, pretty much followed the script that had worked so well in Florida. Flattery was the leitmotif of the entire spectacle. a full-dress military parade was laid on, so too a sunset tour of the Forbidden City. Engaging verbiage, restrained, sprinkled with a few small nuggets for the sake of the White House’s public relations machine.
(* Pompei’s Triumph had a Trump-esque touch. Pompeo the ego maniac built a carriage so tall that it couldn’t fit beneath the victory arch. It risked getting its top sheared off like an 18-wheeler wedged in a highway underpass. History is silent as to the technical fix; nor does it compare the size of Pompei’s exuberant crowd with that of Caesar when he returned from Gaul for his Triumph)
Xi expressed serious concern for Trump’s preoccupation with North Korea which he genuinely shares. He refrained from crossing swords on the economic issues – instead nodding his head at appropriate moments. His task was made all the easier by Trump’s failure to press the Chinese leader or to challenge him in any way. In fact, Trump acquiesced in a revealing and portentous role shift. He became the flatterer, congratulating Xi profusely on China’s fantastic progress, saluting his leadership, and going so far as absolve China from responsibility for taking unfair advantage of the U.S. by blaming it all on the fecklessness of Obama who didn’t defend the American national interest. “ He was all sweet reasonableness: “I don't blame China. Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
Trump had accorded Xi the high position. He had been maneuvered with consummate skill by his host in the age-old Chinese practice of eliciting deference from the “barbarians.” “You are a very special man” Trump confided to Xi. Xi did not reciprocate the effusive personal praise.
Trump went on: “Perhaps now more than ever we have an opportunity to strengthen our relationship.” The last could be taken as a response to Xi’s remarks that “the Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States…Peaceful coexistence was possible if they respected each other’s different political systems.”
These sentiments are to be welcomed any anyone who believes that the paramount challenge for American diplomacy is fashioning and implementing terms of Sino-American engagement. Trump’s previous hostility toward China promised the opposite. So mutual expressions of cordiality and goodwill are to be applauded. Less obvious is that any tangible progress had been made in moving toward a viable relationship that somehow blends elements of rivalry, cooperation, and parallelism. For the Chinese leadership most likely sees Trump as less than a serious statesman – someone to be dealt with delicately (as with a temperamental child). The United States looms very large in the Chinese strategic vision for its might and impulsiveness. But respect for its current President, and the system that produced him, is missing. Therein lies the rub.
Relations with Russia have been far more complicated. That was true under Obama as well. There are several reasons for that. Antipathy toward Moscow remains colored by the Cold War experience with the Soviet Union. That powerful imagery was deeply entrenched in the collective American psyche. For neo-cons, it is reinforced by ancestral memories of Tsarist pogroms. Oddly, the mental reference is to the country – and its regimes – rather than to persons, except for Putin himself. There is virtually no anti-Russian animus such as that evoked by Muslims, Latinos, or even the faded stereotype of one ‘Yellow Peril’ or another.
A second is that, with the collapse of the USSR and its empire, the country was greatly diminished in status and presence. Not many thought of it as a major actor on the world stage – much less someone to worry about once the question of the residual Soviet stockpile was resolved. Washington policy-makers, along with the foreign policy community generally, relegated Russia to the margins where it shared space with the weak, the 'dépassé, and the remote. Aggressive NATO (and, secondarily, EU) expansion ignored Moscow on the assumption that its views didn’t count; and, anyway, expansion pretty much ensured that Russia would stay in its assigned place. Putin, in challenging this conception, first intellectually and then in active policy – in Ukraine, and then Syria), infuriated the American elite by both his presumption and then his success in calling into question the Washington designed plan for a new world order. In their eyes, it simply was illegitimate.
Finally, there is the all-consuming hullabaloo generated by alleged Russian interference in American politics. Based on thin and dubious evidence, it has been blown out of all proportion by partisanship, the feckless behavior by the Trump people before and after the election, and the MSM who never can have enough of a juicy scandal that keeps their endangered financial heads an inch or two above bankruptcy. This surely is hugely frustrating for Putin et al. What he manifestly craves as an interlocutor valable in Washington. One who accepts Russia as a considerable power with its own reasonable interests, i.e. a player.
A series of speeches over the past three years lay out with exceptional clarity and logic what he has in mind. That encompasses not just European matters or even relations with the West overall, but formats and rules for the international system generally. Together, they represent the most candid, complete formulation of this sort offered by the leader of a major power in modern times. Washington completely ignores what Putin has to say. Officials and pundits don’t bother to refute or critique his ideas. Their objective seems to be simply to shut him out, to return him to his designated cardboard shelter on the outskirts of the world’s power centers. His acceptance as a power of consequence by China, Middle East states (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, KSA), by Central and South Asians cuts no ice in D.C. The mental set there is so fixed on the America-centric worldview that reality has a tough time penetrating ( as witness Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Iran).
Trump instinctively appears to have understood that there was neither reason nor sense in treating Russia/Putin as an enemy. This judgment was not based on informed assessment or advice from an identifiable personage in his entourage of camp-followers and court jesters. It need not be since it was Trump’s ignorance of the discourse about Russia that allowed him to reach a simple, common sense conclusion.
Whether, in the absence of the “scandal,” he would acted on those instincts is a mystery. He might very well have been deflected from that course by the powerful forces in the Pentagon, the Intelligence establishment, the Republican Party, and the neo-con machine. Moreover, none of his senior foreign policy appointees, with the possible exception of Tillerson, have had any sympathy for a rapprochement with Russia. The Democratic leadership, let’s recall, were founding members of the anti-Russia/Putin alliance. Obama himself rebuffed every attempt by the Kremlin to build cooperative ties – whether in fighting Salafist terror, Syria, Iran or wherever. Indeed, Obama took every opportunity to insult Putin personally – something without precedent in the frostiest Cold War days. Obama seemed to have a “thing” about Putin. He couldn’t abide the challenge implicitly presented by the man’s intelligence, conviction, autonomy, - and political skills that far outclassed his own. This should not surprise us since it was evident for 8 years in his appointments and treatment of others- with the exception of those classes of persons to whom he instinctively deferred: the financial moguls, anyone wearing a beribboned uniform, the Intelligence agency honchos – that he suffers from an “inferiority complex” concealed by a cultivated “superiority complex.”
Finally, Trump probably lacks the talents, dedication and conviction to have undertaken a sustained, sophisticated diplomatic campaign re. Russia.
So, it is fully understandable that Putin might favor Trump over Hillary Clinton. Moscow harbored muted hopes that Trump would deviate from the course of implacable hostility followed by Obama and marked out by Hillary, too. Given her brutal language, including a direct comparison of Putin to Hitler, Russia had good reason to prefer the alternative. Too realistic to reach the facile judgment that Trump had actually thought through alternative policies and had chosen the wiser course, they did interpret the consistency of his words as inclining toward accommodation and pragmatic cooperation. Putin’s likely expectation was that a pattern of business-like dialogue could be opened, grounded on the principles of: a recognition of Russia’s legitimate concerns (in Europe) and its interests (in the Middle East); an appreciation that Moscow and Washington had convergent interests in countering Islamic terrorism and in the stabilization of world energy markets; and a sober restraint in pressing a values agenda that had proven dangerously destabilizing. A multilateral diplomacy guided by that sort of low-key realism long has been Putin’s goal. As noted above, he has articulated it on multiple occasions with rare candor and specificity. Washington, and Western leaders generally, seem never to have paid his thoughts any attention – assuming that they have read them.
The White House’s newfound tack in the direction of antagonism and confrontation created a quandary for Moscow. Putin will not yield – as demanded by Tillerson and Trump’s phalanx of generals - or bow to American suzerainty. Instead, the Russians will hold fast, temporize, make practical proposals such as the no-conflict zones in Syria – and keep their fingers crossed that Trump is not pushed into doing something fatally stupid. In the longer run, there is always the possibility that the political winds whistling through the desolate open spaces of Trump’s mind might uncover a small oasis of sanity in the mental wilderness, and clarify a vision of the world that permits the sort of engagement they’d prefer.
This stringent, unadorned pragmatism seem to have been the feature of the two men’s brief meetings such as the exchanges that took place in Vietnam. Pomp and ceremony are not Putin’s style.(No scantily clad blonde hopping out of an oversized chocolate cake with a balalaika playing “Moscow Nights.”) Nor is he a charmer. He does project a strong personal presence. His sobriety reinforced by his trademark behavior at home marks him as the type of strong leader whom Trump admires – and, at some level, probably envies. That explains why, in the face of the enormous pressures exerted from all those around him, Trump insists on stating his opinion that he can work with Putin and that the Kremlin leader is not implacably hostile toward the United States. Putin’s reciprocation in treating Trump with the utmost respect, including the cultivation of an elevated mode of address, conveys the message that he believes Trump to have a matching intelligence. Xi seemingly doesn’t bother to do that. The implied compliment cannot fail to make a positive impression on Trump whose own senior aides consider him a “moron.”
Psychology – including abnormal psychology and adolescent psychology, and Anthropology promise to give us greater insight into the behavior of some of today’s most important leaders than does Economics or Political Science
Prof. Michael Brenner
University of Pittsburgh
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