Monday, July 16, 2018

The Summit

Today's the Trump-Putin summit.  Last year Walter Russell Mead, writing in The American Interest, had an interesting take on Trump's policy towards Russia.  Mead is a mainstream foreign policy expert, who seems to be an old-style liberal.  I have no idea who he supported in the 2016 election.  Mead pointed out:

If Trump were the Manchurian candidate that people keep wanting to believe that he is, here are some of the things he’d be doing:
  • Limiting fracking as much as he possibly could
  • Blocking oil and gas pipelines
  • Opening negotiations for major nuclear arms reductions
  • Cutting U.S. military spending
  • Trying to tamp down tensions with Russia’s ally Iran
He then goes on to note that while these were President Obama's actual policies, Trump was doing the opposite in each area.

From a policy perspective not much has changed since then.  As noted here a couple of days ago, the United States has just entered into an unprecedented joint security arrangement with Sweden and Finland designed to address the Russian threat.  The President just caused a storm of controversy by accusing Germany of becoming too economically dependent upon Russian natural gas and has been demanding our NATO allies increase defense spending.

On Friday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Trump appointee, gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in which he said cyberthreats were our #1 security risk, and that the threat came from China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, calling Russia as "no question . . . the most aggressive".

However, I am uncertain how this summit will turn out.  I was not convinced of the need for it in the first place (I think the meeting with Kim was much more justifiable).  My concerns are linked back to the last paragraph in Mead's piece:
America needs an intellectually solvent and emotionally stable press to give this president the skeptical and searching scrutiny that he needs. What we are getting instead is something much worse for the health of the republic: a blind instinctive rage that lashes out without wounding, that injures its own credibility more than its target, that discredits the press at just the moment where its contributions are most needed.
While I fully agree with Mead's sentiment regarding the press, and believe the situation has only gotten worse since he wrote, I think it also fair to point out that I don't consider the president "intellectually solvent and emotionally stable" (unfortunately that was not on offer from either candidate in 2016).

Most of Trump's actions, and certainly the actions and words of those in his administration, whether Coats at DNI, Pompeo at State, and Mattis at Defence have been consistent in confronting Russia.  The problem is Trump's own statements are erratic, unpredictable, often hard to decipher, and he is the ultimate decider.

In addition, Trump's personality poses a risk in a one on one meeting.  He is not an ideologue, he is transactional.  Unlike Putin, he will not be knowledgeable in the details of issues or their back history, but he believes in the ability to do deals on a personal basis.  These characteristics are very similar to those of President Franklin Roosevelt in his dealings with the Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union.  FDR was not ideological, had a vague notion that our two systems would somehow converge in the future, and believed he could charm Stalin into moving in America's direction.  While FDR was a superb wartime leader, his complete misunderstanding of Stalin and the Soviet system would like have had significant negative repercussions if he had survived to serve out his term.

And Trump has one additional trait beyond FDR's - he is susceptible to flattery.  As he himself has said, if you say something nice about him he'll say something nice about you.  It led him to make some of those atrocious statements about Russia during the election campaign, statements reminiscent of Obama's apologetics to foreign countries.  What that means for the Putin meeting we will find out, but I wish it was not happening.

UPDATE:  Well, my worst fears were realized.  First, we had last night's disgraceful tweet blaming problems with Russian-American relations solely on the United States followed by Trump's awful performance at the press conference with Putin.  I'll end with this from the conservative blog Powerline:
Trump seems unable to handle that truth. All that matters to him is the absence of any suggestion that his 2016 victory was tainted. Thus, he puts his own ego ahead of the national interest in responding to a Russian assault on our democratic process. That’s disgusting.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE:  The President's course of action since the summit only compounds his problems.  His retraction of his controversial Helsinki statement, followed by his retraction of his retraction, followed by something I can't even figure out, along with his entertaining (however briefly) Putin's offer to trade interviews of US and Russians, and his seeming endorsement of Russia's second gas pipeline to Germany, after telling the Germans they were foolish to allow it make him look foolish and inept.  I don't like the idea of the fall summit with Putin in DC, because when Trump is with Putin he acts like a star struck teenage girl.

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