By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival
Today’s meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin was unlike any such encounter in the history of US–Russian relations. The reason is simple: Putin was finally able to shake the hand of the man whom he actively helped to become president.
To write that he ‘actively helped’ install Trump in the White House is not to say that this support was decisive. Nor is it necessarily the most significant aspect in the currently fraught relations between Russia and transatlantic allies. Yet deciding what is important is precisely what is so fiendishly difficult in the disordered political universe of an American president who is evidently intent on subverting the concepts of reality and truth.
That Russian agents, at Putin’s behest, actively worked for Trump’s election was the judgement, of course, of the US intelligence community. It is a judgement we have to take more or less on faith, since America’s spies are protecting their sources. But it is not really much of a leap of faith, given that the alternative narratives are those of Trump’s flailing assertions of alternative reality, and Putin’s own rather smug trolling. The judgement, in any event, is what famously provoked Trump on the eve of his presidency to compare US intelligence officials to Nazis.
That presidential tweet, almost forgettable in the blizzard of unhinged tweets that have followed it, attests to the success, on at least one level, of Russian meddling. If one assumes a zero-sum competition between the United States and Russia – and this is the mind-set that does seem to prevail right now in Moscow – then having a US president comparing his intelligence agencies to Nazis, demanding that his press secretary make claims about inaugural crowd sizes that anyone with eyes could see to be false, provoking the Chancellor of Germany to conclude that her country can no longer depend on the United States, and otherwise subjecting the United States to embarrassment and ridicule, does look like a Russian win.
In the more traditional realm of great-power diplomacy, the scorecard is arguably more mixed. President Trump did, at his initial stop in Warsaw, reaffirm US commitment to NATO’s Article 5, and he called on Russia to stop destabilising Ukraine. There is a vast machinery of US national-security policy that remains committed to the alliance, and the president’s obvious ambivalence about that commitment doesn’t mean it will end. At the same time, however, Trump went into his meeting with Putin without a clearly established plan or agenda. This is on the testimony of his National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who more or less shrugged: ‘It’s whatever the president wants to talk about.’ This is somewhat unnerving: more capable presidents than Donald Trump have felt the need to prepare for meetings with their Russian counterpart.
It was also in Warsaw that the US President offered support to the authoritarian tendencies of the Polish government along with the hard-line nationalists in his own White House. He joined the Polish prime minister in attacking the very notion of a critical, independent press. And he proclaimed that the ‘fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive’. The American journalist Peter Beinart properly labelled this the ‘most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech – perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime...’ In context it was clear that Trump was talking not about the threat of terrorism, a serious problem but hardly a threat to the West’s ‘survival’. Rather, he was appealing to the fever dreams of an extremist Right, which sees an existential threat in the pollution of multicultural and multiracial immigration.
And so we have an administration formally committed to defence obligations for the transatlantic alliance, but also actively hostile – at least as far as the president is concerned – to the liberal values that should glue that alliance together. Which is more important?