Musings from afar

The tragedy of being Donald Trump

The American president's shambolic approach to diplomacy has made sure that he has compounded problems for the US.

 |  Musings from afar  |  5-minute read |   20-07-2018
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There is widespread confusion in the US over what President Donald Trump has achieved after his meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. After responding “no” to a question about whether Russia was still targeting American elections, the White House spokesperson rejected that interpretation, suggesting that “the President and his administration are working very hard to make sure that Russia is unable to meddle in our elections as they have done in the past.”

Strong exception

This came after Trump suggested that he misspoke during this week’s summit when he appeared to side with Putin over claims of Russian meddling in US electoral process. This happened against the backdrop of the FBI issuing indictments charging 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee to favour Trump’s bid.

The US intelligence community, not surprisingly, has taken a strong exception to this extraordinary behaviour on the part of the President with the US intelligence chief Dan Coats reiterating that Russia was involved in “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.” In fact, in February he told the US Congress that he had already seen evidence that Russia was targeting the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Members of the US Congress are now demanding that the notes of the US translator who accompanied Trump to his two-hour meeting with Putin be made available to them for scrutiny.

It all began with the news conference after the Helsinki summit when Trump was asked about alleged Russian meddling in the US election. His now famous response was: “My people came to me... they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

This was widely panned in the US after which Trump was forced to issue a clarification: “The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t’ or ‘why it wouldn’t be Russia’. Sort of a double negative.”

It didn’t help as the damage was already done. Even many of Trump’s supporters have found it difficult to stand up for the US President. Newt Gingrich called Trump’s statements on intelligence agencies “the most serious mistake of his presidency.” Trump has tried to make a case that his outreach to Putin is an attempt at mending ties between two major nuclear powers for wider strategic stability. But the outcome of the summit hardly inspires any confidence.

Meanwhile, in the process, European allies have been a short shrift. Before he went to Helsinki, Trump rattled America’s NATO allies in Brussels where he demanded that they contribute more to the alliance or else face the prospect of the US walking out.

He also trashed British Prime Minister Theresa May in a tabloid interview before his visit to London, weakening her already embattled position even further. He even called the European Union a “foe”. In response to a query about who he thinks America’s biggest foe is, globally, right now, Trump said: “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us is in trade.”

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Putin scores

The result is a lot of nervousness in Europe with NATO allies like Estonia feeling especially vulnerable as Trump cosies up to Putin. Meanwhile, Crimea was off the Trump-Putin agenda because the Russian President “repeatedly stated and explained that Crimea cannot be and will never be on the agenda because it is an inseparable part of Russia.”

The narrative that has emerged post-Helsinki summit is one where Trump comes across as an ill-prepared leader with Putin outmanoeuvring him from the very start. In Helsinki, Trump not only sided with the Kremlin over his own intelligence agencies on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election but he also refused to blame Moscow alone for the poor state of US-Russian relations.

What in theory could have been a transformative move, Trump’s shambolic approach to diplomacy has made sure that it has further compounded problems for the US. Though Trump remains popular with his base, Washington’s foreign policy elite are counting the cost of Trump’s disruption. America’s partners like India too will need to be more imaginative in managing the turbulence caused by Trump.

Challenges ahead

While a US-Russia rapprochement is certainly in Indian interests, Trump’s approach has the potential to make this relationship more complicated. The US foreign policy machine will now push back even harder on Russia, making life tougher for nations like India which want to maintain ties with both powers.

While India has categorically asserted that it intends to move ahead with defence cooperation with Russia including the deal for S-400 Triumf air defence missile system, Washington has warned New Delhi of the imposition of sanctions under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This remains the immediate challenge even as the long-term challenge of a Russia-China axis continues to grow.

A more serious approach to policymaking perhaps would have helped Trump in challenging the American foreign policy shibboleths which he so despises and possibly are much needed. But by adopting a chaotic approach, he is making sure that even when he might be right he won’t be able to find support within the American polity. These are challenging times for the US and the world and they demand a serious presidency. So far it is not in sight.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Farce Majeure: Why Pakistan’s 2018 General Election is a brutal mockery

Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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