by Robert E. Hunter
No U.S. president in living memory has been so pilloried for his foreign policy actions as has President Donald Trump since he met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. A former head of the CIA called his performance “nothing short of treasonous.” There has also been public criticism by the director of the FBI and the director of national intelligence, who do not usually make unauthorized public comments on sensitive issues, whether in support or critical of the sitting president. Further, several former top officials in the intelligence community with post-government careers as television commentators have spoken harshly about the president’s Helsinki statements. A requirement of holding high positions and responsibility in the intelligence community for the nation’s most closely guarded secrets should be lifetime abstinence from partisan politics.
To a great extent, President Trump has only himself to blame. Even before he was inaugurated, he declared war on virtually all the mainstream media, to a degree unprecedented for a senior US political figure. The media returned the favor. Trump has also upset so many traditional apple carts, in foreign as well as in domestic affairs, that it is hard to keep count. He has insulted some of America’s closest allies (notably the elected leaders of Canada, Germany, and Britain). He declared the European Union a foe—a “competitor” in trade—of the United States. And he sowed doubts among many NATO allies about his fealty to the alliance’s core principle of one-for-all-and-all-for-one. At the recent NATO summit in Brussels, however, he signed on to commitments of strength, including counters to Russia.
Further, Trump committed tyro mistakes at Helsinki and afterwards in terms of building support for what he was trying to do. When a president meets one-on-one with a foreign leader, especially with so much is at stake, his first post-meeting step must be to debrief at least one of his top officials (in this case either Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or National Security Advisor John Bolton), who would then immediately conduct a background briefing for the US media. In the absence of such information, the media can be forgiven for focusing on all that was available at the Helsinki press conference—where one US reporter focused on “body language”—or trying to divine what happened in the Trump-Putin meeting by searching through the press conference text or perhaps consulting a Ouija board! As someone who has lived by the “sword” of speaking over the heads of the media, Trump failed to see that he is now dying by the sword he forged. Even now, he has not corrected that critical error by giving his side of what transpired in his private meeting with Putin.
Yet it is also true that Trump – and, by extension, basic US foreign policy interests — never had a chance. There were already several fixed narratives. One is that Russia interfered in the US 2016 presidential election, which is almost certainly true, but also, by implication, that that is why Hillary Clinton lost the election, which is hard to credit. Another narrative is that Russia “has something” on Trump that leads him to take Russia’s side on key issues (itself not proved) or even, at the extreme, to be a “Russian intelligence asset.” A third compelling narrative is that there is a new cold war with Russia, following its 2014 seizure of Crimea, its continue support of aggression in other parts of Ukraine, and various efforts to weaken the security of some NATO countries (e.g., by cyber-attacks) and European democracy overall. Finally, regarding raw US domestic politics, the “Russia factor” is easily the best cudgel with which to try driving Trump from office, with only indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller required at some point to seal the deal.
US Security Interests in Dealing with Russia
Lost in all of this, however, are US national interests in dealing with Russia. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, many commentators and analysts have still not adjusted to the fact that there is no longer a unifying threat (the Soviet Union) to push much of the Free World to shelter under the protective American wing. More than one country, with China in the lead, is beginning to challenge US supremacy. The United States can no longer largely have its way as it did in the Cold War, nor will the Russian Federation forever be an easy-to-ignore third-rate power. After Bill Clinton, US leaders stopped showing more than grudging respect for Russia, a basic Russian interest following defeat in the Cold War.
The first US president who understood that Russia could not forever be kept down was George H. W. Bush, who proclaimed a grand strategy of trying to create a Europe “whole and free and at peace.” At its heart was a commitment to keeping the door open for Russia, if it were prepared to take part like other European countries. Bush’s policy was designed to try forestalling Russian revanchism like that in Germany following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. President Bill Clinton built on what Bush began. This included Russia’s joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace and Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, its joining the post-Dayton Accords Implementation Force in Bosnia (with Russian troops put under US command!), concluding the NATO-Russia Founding Act with its 19 areas of cooperation, and tacitly accepting admission to NATO of the first three central European countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary). The first two “surrounded Germany,” as Chancellor Helmut Kohl foresaw as a means of reassuring other countries of Germany’s unthreatening future.
Then things went off the track, in both the United States and Russia. NATO took in more countries, the George W. Bush administration abrogated the 1972 ABM treaty, a symbol of Russia’s still being “at the top table,” and then later declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” This not just challenged Russia but also played into Putin’s developing narrative that the West was seeking to surround Russia, a potent weapon in Russian domestic politics. For his part, Putin began dismantling what little there was of Russian democratic practice, and then in Ukraine broke Moscow’s guarantees of its security. For good measure, Russia inserted itself into Syria, though in part because of Obama administration miscues in declaring policies that it was unprepared to implement such as a “red line” on Syrian use of poison gas and the insistence that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad “must go.” But when Trump said at the Helsinki press conference that “I do feel that we have both made some mistakes,” he was pilloried for his accurate description.
Maybe Trump has nefarious motives for his approaches to Russia. But he has worked harder than any US president since the late Clinton administration to try avoiding a new cold war, beginning by showing respect for Russia as a major power, for which Russians yearn and see embodied in Putin. The Obama administration made some half-hearted attempts to “reset” relations, but the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 promised to continue a tough line, with no more than a passing reference to the US security requirement to try moving US-Russian relations off dead center. By going to Helsinki, Trump was doing that.
There is already one valid inference from this summit: The United States and Russia have thereby stepped back from a new cold war. This is a cardinal achievement, consonant with basic US national security interests, however boxed in with uncertainties and qualifications.
The Possibilities, Though Not Yet Probabilities
In terms of US interests, it is important to continue building on what has been begun. It can include the planned Trump-Putin summit in Washington this fall, though one can hope it is “well prepared,” to use diplomats’ jargon. To be sure, it is impossible to know how much of what Putin said that he and Trump agreed on at Helsinki will actually happen, but it is an impressive list. Unfortunately, few commentators seem to have actually read the transcript of the Helsinki press conference or, if they have, have chosen to put a negative (anti-Trump) spin on virtually every element.
Thus, Putin pledged to extend the New Start Treaty, which would otherwise expire in February 2021, and also to work to sort out disagreements on implementing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Until he spoke, both of these initiatives were in grave doubt. He noted US-Russian military-to-military contacts in Syria to deconflict respective military activities as well as military-to-military contacts more generally, which have been frozen since Russian aggression in Ukraine. “As far as Syria is concerned,” Putin continued, “the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of the successful joint [US-Russian] work. Russia and the United States apparently can proactively take leadership on this issue.”
Putin pledged to renew gas pipeline cooperation with Ukraine. Another “idea is to create an expert council that would include political scientists, prominent diplomats and former military experts in both countries who would look for points of contact between the two countries. That would look for ways of putting the relationship on the trajectory of growth.” Such formal contacts do not now exist.
Putin also said that Trump had stated in their meeting the US position on Crimea (which, Putin noted, is that Russia’s seizure “was illegal”) and that Trump raised the issue of Russian interference in the US election. Further, Putin said that Russia continues to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which trammels its potential to build a nuclear weapon. On this issue, Putin is more supportive of US national security interests than Trump was when he withdrew from the JCPOA at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Israel and because of US domestic politics.
On some if not all of these matters, Putin may have just been speaking “to the galleries” in total cynicism. But every item on the list is in American interests and is worth exploring. In this case, don’t trust, but try to verify.
For his part, Trump said, “I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person.” Further: “We also agreed that representatives from our national security councils will meet to follow-up on all of the issues we addressed today and to continue the progress we have started right here in Helsinki.”
Critical issues for the US now are whether the president will know how to proceed with the particulars, and whether his critics will give him and the nation half a chance to see whether he can succeed. Trying to get rid of Trump is perhaps a good thing. Damaging US foreign policy interests in the process, which is what is currently happening, would be tragic for all concerned.