Diplomatic assault

Print edition : August 31, 2018

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. President Donald Trump, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, (second row) Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, French President Emmanuel Macron, (third row) Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, Czech Republic President Milos Zeman and Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pose for a photograph ahead of the opening ceremony of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, on July 11. Photo: REUTERS

A cartoon baby blimp of Trump flown in protest against his visit in London on July 13. Photo: Matt Dunham/AP

Donald Trump hectors NATO allies to increase military spending, rakes up Brexit in London, and gives a clean chit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

President Donald Trump’s week-long whirlwind tour of Europe in July left a lot of ruffled feathers in its wake. His style of diplomacy rattled his hosts in Europe. His meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki generated a major political controversy back home in the United States. For the first time, a U.S. President has shown no compunction in questioning the rationale for the continued existence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). He described the European Union (E.U.) as a “foe” of the U.S. and accorded Russia the status of a “good competitor”. At the same time, Trump did not hesitate to accuse the German government of being “captive to Russia” because of its dependence on the natural gas imported from that country. “Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” he told NATO Secretary General Jeff Stoltenberg. Trump criticised Germany and some other countries for not fulfilling their commitments to the Western military alliance and relying heavily on the security umbrella provided by the U.S.

At the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Trump hectored his allies on the need to raise their military spending and contribute more to the alliance. At the start of his European trip, Trump said all NATO member-countries should spend at least 2 per cent of their national gross domestic product on defence. After his meeting with European leaders, Trump claimed that his NATO partners had agreed to increase their defence spending to around 4 per cent. The German and French governments denied making any such commitments. It is another matter that many NATO countries are reluctant to increase their defence budget to even the 2 per cent demanded by Trump. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said there was no question of his government increasing its military budget. The people in Germany and Italy are not too happy with the presence of U.S. military bases that have been on their soil since the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Trump’s reluctance to fully endorse Article 15 of the founding treaty of NATO perturbed his European allies. The Article states that an attack on a member-country is to be treated as an attack on all NATO members. Trump had questioned the recent admission of Montenegro, a country with a population of 600,000, into the alliance.

Many European commentators are now wondering loudly whether NATO will survive the Trump presidency. The U.S. President threatened “to go it alone” if NATO allies refused to hike their defence budgets. Many European leaders saw this as the U.S.’ veiled threat to quit NATO. The U.S. contributes around 22 per cent of NATO’s military budget.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.   -  Grigory Dukor/REUTERS

However, before leaving Brussels Trump signed a NATO statement that was critical of Russian actions in Ukraine. Ever since Crimea rejoined the Russian Federation, NATO has been expanding eastwards, inviting Russia’s immediate neighbours to join the military grouping that was created at the height of the Cold War. The NATO statement endorsed the plan laid out by Defence Secretary James Mattis to assemble 30 land battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels capable of deployment within 30 days. The proposed force will be ready by 2020 for deployment on the Russian border. Moscow views the move as another serious provocation by NATO. Before leaving Brussels, Trump once again certified himself a “very stable genius” while taking “total credit” for making his NATO allies spend more on defence. The 2 per cent figure for defence spending, according to the NATO agreement, is to be reached only by 2024.

After stirring things up in Brussels, Trump went to the United Kingdom for a meeting with British Prime Minster Theresa May and the Queen. Londoners had made it clear that Trump was not welcome in their city. The city witnessed one of its biggest demonstrations since the 2003 protests against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. All of Trump’s official engagements were held outside the city. Londoners greeted his arrival on British soil by launching a six-metre-tall “Trump baby” balloon over the British Parliament. Before the scheduled meeting between Trump and Theresa May, the news leaked out that Trump had given yet another explosive interview, this time to the British tabloid newspaper The Sun, owned by his ideological soulmate Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News, which played a big role in the rise of Trump. In the interview, Trump was critical of the way in which Theresa May handled her Brexit strategy and complained that she did not listen to the advice he had proffered. To add insult to injury, Trump praised Boris Johnson, who had resigned from Theresa May’s Cabinet citing serious differences over the government’s policy on Brexit. Trump even suggested that Johnson would make a good Prime Minister. Trump told the British Premier during their meeting that he was misquoted and that his administration was open to a trade deal, regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May later said that Trump had advised her to “sue” the E.U. on the Brexit issue.

But it was Trump’s meeting with Putin that caused the biggest furore in the U.S. and in west European capitals. Trump had requested for the meeting with his Russian counterpart. The U.S. corporate media and Democrats continue to blame Putin and alleged Russian meddling for Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. But no substantive evidence has been provided by investigative agencies to support their claims. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate Russian meddling, saw it fit to indict 12 Russian military intelligence officials on charges of hacking into the computers of the Democratic Party’s National Committee and the personal computer of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The indictment was announced just as Trump was getting ready for his meeting with Putin. Although the charges against the Russians are unsubstantiated and legally questionable, influential sections of the U.S. establishment and media demanded that Trump cancel his meeting with Putin.

Unfazed by the domestic criticism, Trump not only went ahead with the talks but declared it a success. The mainstream U.S. media were vehement in their criticism of Trump after he addressed a joint press conference with Putin. Trump’s assertion that Putin had assured him that there had been no Russian interference in the 2016 election drove influential sections of the establishment and the media into a frenzy. One prominent commentator went to the extent of characterising Trump’s performance in Helsinki as “the most disgraceful conduct by an American President, ever”. For the liberal interventionist politicians and pundits of the U.S, Trump’s meeting with Putin was akin to treason and worse than the military interventions in Vietnam and Iraq ordered by previous U.S. Presidents.

John Brennan, a former Central Intelligence Agency chief, who served in the Barack Obama administration, declared that Trump’s meeting with Putin “exceeds the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanours”. James Clapper, the former Director of Intelligence, said Trump “essentially capitulated” to Putin. Republican politicians chose to keep their peace and refused to openly criticise the President. Trump’s blue-collar base seems unflinching in its support so far. With midterm elections looming, few Republican politicians are willing to criticise Trump openly.


The barrage of criticism initially seemed to faze Trump. He tried to backtrack, saying that he was misquoted and that he did not give Putin a clean chit on the issue of interference in the internal affairs of the U.S. He said he had confronted Putin on various other issues during his one-on-one talks, which lasted four hours. Trump emphasised that no other U.S President before him had been as tough on Russia as his administration had been. In April, the Trump administration introduced additional sanctions on Russia targeting seven of Russia’s richest men and 17 top officials. “Nobody has been tougher on Russia, but getting along with Russia would be a good thing,” Trump had said at the time. Among those sanctioned is Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov. In the same month, Russian diplomats were expelled from the U.S. following the mysterious poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei V. Skripal, in England.

The U.S. political and military establishment, which some commentators describe as the “deep state”, is overwhelmingly ranged against Trump. It views any U.S. engagement with Russia at a high level as appeasement of Putin’s so-called aggression in Ukraine and his momentous intervention in Syria. That intervention had turned the tide of war in the region in favour of a republican secular grouping and against jehadists. U.S. attempts to isolate Russia in Europe and elsewhere have also failed to a large extent. The successful holding of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia in June-July has bolstered its reputation as a hospitable and peace-loving nation.

Russia and the U.S. have the two biggest nuclear arsenals in the world. Both the countries have the capacity to destroy the world many times over. Only the foolhardy will object to regular meetings of the Presidents of the two countries to discuss important issues. When Trump announced a few days after his return from Helsinki that he planned to meet Putin again, and this time in the White House, the U.S. establishment and the media once again erupted in unmitigated anger.

Both Putin and Trump have described the Helsinki meeting as a success. Trump went to the extent of saying that any threat of a new Cold War breaking out between the two countries was over after his talks with Putin. Not too many details have emerged about what exactly transpired in the talks. Both sides have indicated that the situation in Ukraine, Syria and the wider region figured in the talks. Trump evidently did not get any commitment from Putin on putting pressure on Iran to curtail its role in West Asia. The two Presidents said they would be working together on nuclear arms control. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed between the two countries in 2011 is due to expire in 2021.

Putin told the media in Helsinki that the charge of Russian meddling in the U.S. election was “utter nonsense”. Speaking to Russian diplomats in Moscow the next day, he said the Helsinki summit was “successful and led to some useful agreements”. He, however, added a word of caution by stating that “powerful” forces in the U.S. were trying to sabotage what the summit had achieved. Trump, who once in a while speaks with clarity and honesty, said in Helsinki that both Russia and the U.S. shared the blame for their deteriorating relationship.

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