Robert Harneis -TDO- To a background of anti-globalization riots, the G20 get together in Hamburg was inevitably dominated by the long awaited first meeting between veteran Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the turbulent newcomer Donald Trump. The United States is, quantitively at least, the leading military power on the planet. It also has the largest economy… for the moment. As a former US ambassador to Moscow remarked, ‘Russia is the only country in the world that could annihilate the US in an afternoon, so Russia matters’.
What ought to have been a hopeful affair has been vastly complicated by the almost hysterical resistance within the US to Trump’s revisionist foreign policy ideas, as expressed during the campaign particularly as regards Russia, and which helped his election victory.
In April 2016 during his election campaign, Trump suggested ‘I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia—from a position of strength only—is possible, absolutely possible. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.’
In contrast with this not unreasonable observation, his rival Hilary Clinton stuck to the standard US electoral foreign policy script. The Wall Street Journal, no less, told us Mrs. Clinton has called Mr. Putin a “bully,” and has described the relationship between the U.S. and Russia as complicated. During the 2008 presidential election, she said Mr. Putin “was a KGB agent, by definition he doesn’t have a soul.” To this absurdity Mr. Putin later acidly (and unforgivably?) responded, “I think at a minimum it’s important for a government leader to have a brain.”
Trump’s victory has generated a political brawl that could only happen in America. The furious losers, the Democrats, combined with the might of the American military industrial complex, amplified by the media, have attacked Trump for the heinous crime of talking to the Russians and the Russians for fixing the elections in Trump’s favor. Despite considerable sound and fury, no prove of any illegal activity has been forthcoming. To fend off vigorous attempts to launch an impeachment process against him Trump has been forced to adopt the sort of half-baked policies that were expected of Clinton. Amongst the highlights, NATO troops rush hither and thither to fend of imaginary Russian threats; a plane known to be carrying the Russian Defense Minister was buzzed in international airspace by a US air force F-16; the US navy has bombarded a largely empty airfield in Syria in retaliation for an imaginary Syrian army chemical attack and threatened to do the same again; the US Air Force has shot down a Syrian air force plane; the deployment of Patriot missile to Poland have been announced; Russia has been accused of destabilizing Eastern Europe despite the US and its Western allies having triggered the crisis in Ukraine by supporting a coup d’état in Kiev in the first place. To hell with America first, never let it be said that Trump is soft on Russia or that the United States might start conducting a less financially crippling foreign policy that would enable candidate Trump’s plans to rebuild US finances and ‘make America great again’.
Despite all this, the G20 meeting occurs as Trump shows signs of surviving the political onslaught by those so outraged by his election. He has done unexpectedly well in bi-elections and the bill to increase Russian and Iranian sanctions has hit a snag. He may now feel that he has done enough to neutralize his critics and that it is safe to return to his first common sense inclination and try and reconcile with Russia.
The meeting was scheduled to last half an hour but ended after 2 hours and 16 minutes. Despite oceans of comment by the pundits no one knows what the two men talked about. To prevent leaks only six people were present, the two Presidents, their foreign ministers and the two translators. The two sides have given versions that may or may not be true – notably they talked about Syria and supposed election meddling by Russia. That has not prevented many and varied opinions from the pundits.
The Washington Post was prepared to concede that a meeting with Putin was necessary but was very upset because Trump had told Putin it was an ‘honor’ to meet him. With their usual un-journalistic caricature of Russia, they trumpeted ‘"It’s an honor to be with you," President Trump told Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday as they met for the first time. No. Wrong. It is not an honor to sit down with the leader of a regime that invades peaceable neighbors, covertly interferes in the elections of democratic nations, and orchestrates and tolerates the assassination of domestic political opponents and journalists.’ Students of black humor will appreciate that by simply changing the word ‘domestic’ to ‘foreign’ the above tirade would be a pretty accurate description of the foreign activities of the United States.
It is an indication of the low level of US debate on foreign affairs that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson found it necessary to tell the media that ‘it is not wrong to meet’.
Amongst the serious commentators, the pro-Russian Saker remarked despondently that the meeting achieved ‘almost nothing’ with only a not fully negotiated ceasefire in south West Syria, where there is little fighting anyway.
Much more hopefully, and perhaps more in accord with the facts as they are known, the American academic and Russian specialist Professor Stephen Cohen, veteran of many Russia US summits, told Tucker Carlson that in his opinion this was the beginning of a ‘potentially historic new start anti-Cold War partnership ‘and that the meeting was potentially the ‘most fateful meeting since 1945’. He went so far as to describe Trump as ‘politically courageous’ and finally emerging as an ‘American statesman’ but with the warning that ‘attempts to sabotage his efforts continue’.
The G20 was about much more than just this one side meeting, of course, and we will return to the subject.