BY M.R. JOSSE
KATHMANDU: Last week, this column argued that America, under President Donald Trump, continued to annoy and flummox friends and foes while maintaining her global status as being far too important to ignore.
On the eve of his July 16 Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin – following his blitzkrieg diplomacy at the Brussels NATO summit and in the UK – there is no plausible cause for me to change that viewpoint.
Before taking stock of the outcome of the Trump-Putin palavers in my next piece, there are a few thoughts that can be ventilated right now.
First, there is the issue of whether Trump should have scrubbed his Helsinki sortie in the light of the identification by the relevant American counsel of 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election – a raucous, predictable demand by Democrats.
He, as we know, did not. That I believe was the proper decision given the huge stakes involved and the preparations that had been made for the summit, by both parties. Besides, if Trump had, at the eleventh hour, decided to stay away from Helsinki, equally stentorian voices would have excoriated him for being a quitter.
America’s international credibility would have been severely impaired, if not shattered, with unpredictable consequences. Either way, it was a question of ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’.
Second, though Trump’s angularities and unconventionality are legion, I believe his public description of Russia as a “competitor” rather than an “enemy” was right on the ball: otherwise, America would have to urgently prepare for “war” with Russia – a prospect that not even the most ardent jingoist, in the United States or within NATO, can possibly desire.
Third, that the American president has opted for a first-time, stand-alone summit with Putin not just on a whim but with a clear plan in mind is clearly suggested by these indicators, among others: national security advisor John Bolton’s recent preparing-the-way-for-Helsinki mission to Moscow; and a Reuters report that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed to his cabinet on Saturday (while Trump was in Scotland) that he and Trump in a phone conversation discussed “security and diplomatic issues arising from regional developments, chief most among them, of course, Syria and Iran.”
Fourthly, the timing of Helsinki is also significant, following the recent NATO summit in Brussels and the successful conclusion of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 football carnival that contributed so amply to the advertisement of Russia’s soft power and Putin’s global image and prestige, including in the West.
As predicted, Trump, despite rattling his allies initially, made it clear that he stood firmly behind NATO, the Western military alliance – directed chiefly against Russia. This could hardly have pleased Moscow.
Although the America president’s accusation of Germany being a “captive” of Russia sent shockwaves through the echo chambers of Western chancelleries, it is difficult, in my view, to deny the basic logic of Trump’s allegation given the intrinsic contradiction of projecting Russia both as a threat as well as energy partner!
That charge, of course, has relevance to Trump’s complaint to NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg that Germany was wrong to support a new $ 11-billion Baltic Sea pipeline to import Russian gas – while being slow to meet targets for NATO spending to protect against Russia.
Though the pipeline in question may indeed be a commercial venture, not funded by Berlin, one can hardly deny that it is quite inappropriate to talk, from one side of the mouth, of a Russian threat to Europe and, from the other, to help greatly shore up Russia’s economy, not to mention incautiously increasing Germany’s dependence on Russia.
Here are now a few thoughts on the Britain segment of Trump’s recent diplomatic initiative. I should perhaps begin by noting the blizzard of protests that greeted him on his trip to England and Scotland – demonstrations that, in the main, underlined that his “message of hate and division” is not welcome in Britain.
I was, incidentally, struck by the comment of a British minister who denied that the demonstrations were an “embarrassment” to the government; in his view, they were an “embarrassment” to the protestors themselves as they went against the age-old tradition of welcoming a foreign guest.
The other side to that coin is, of course, that warnings of such a state of affairs did not deter Trump – as it might have other less intrepid political leaders – from making good on an invite from British Prime Minister Theresa May, not to mention tea with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, a rare occasion that seems to have gone off brilliantly, without a hitch.
Trump’s interview to The Sun tabloid, wherein he opined that May’s latest proposals on Brexit would kill off any chance of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, was undiplomatic in the extreme; he attempted to make up at a joint press conference with May later, wherein he contradicted his earlier comments and made clear not only his great admiration for her but went on to aver that a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK was entirely possible.
While Trump’s gaffs and flip-flops will be remembered for sometime, so, too, the fact that, in a rather unique manner, America’s special relations with Britain were once more highlighted. At the end of the day, many thoughtful commentators reminded their audience that Britain needs America more than America needs Britain.
Hindustan Times disclosed that the Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj told a gaggle of India’s envoys to South Asia/Indian Ocean countries recently how to deal with China. She suggested: “They must continue to watch Beijing’s activities, pursue their own projects and educate their neighbours of the consequences of economic engagement with China.”
Coming after the informal India-China summit in Wuhan in April, one must ask if Wuhan was such a panacea, why still this ‘China threat’ obsession?