Tuesday, Nov 13, 2018 | Last Update : 07:37 AM IST

If Trump comes calling, be ready for the debris

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Jul 16, 2018, 12:09 am IST
Updated : Jul 16, 2018, 2:37 am IST

Others have noted that Mr Trump has never criticised Mr Putin, Xi Jinping or Kim Jong-un, whereas he rarely misses a chance to skewer his allies.

US President Donald Trump (Photo: File)
 US President Donald Trump (Photo: File)

US President Donald Trump completed two of the three legs of his European tour by Saturday, having attended the Nato summit and then completed the official part of his visit to Britain. He then flew off to his Turnberry Golf property in Scotland for some golf and to “prep” for his looming landmark summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. Scotland also happens to be the birthplace of Mr Trump’s mother. While the diplomatic debris left in his wake was being analysed, special counsel Robert Mueller, enquiring into Russian interference with the last US presidential election in 2016, complicated the scenario for the Trump-Putin summit at Helsinki by indicting 12 Russian military officers for stealing data from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic campaign committee.

The US Democratic Party and some Republican senators, John McCain being the most prominent, asked Mr Trump to postpone his meeting with Mr Putin till the Russians are held accountable. At British PM Theresa May’s Chequers estate, where she received Mr Trump for their meeting as London had been overrun by demonstrators opposing his visit, at a joint press interaction Mr Trump was blasé about the Mueller finding impacting his meeting with President Putin. He said he would ask Mr Putin but there “won’t be a Perry Mason here”, implying, as he tweeted last year after his first face-to-face encounter with the Russian President, that “he vehemently denied it”. The White House presented an egregious explanation that the Mueller enquiry had in fact exonerated the Trump campaign as no Americans had been named in the finding.

Turning to the first two legs of Mr Trump’s tour, the Nato summit in Brussels began with a Trumpian dinner harangue about Germany being “totally controlled by Russia” due to its new gas deal and the Europeans not equitably sharing the burden of Nato defence spending. The assumption was that the dinner dissonance would be passé by the morning when the summit started. Mr Trump arrived late at the venue and then launched into a threat that unless defence spending was raised to, not just the already-agreed two per cent of the GDP of each member by 2019, but in fact four per cent immediately, then the US would withdraw from the alliance. On the agenda that morning were Afghanistan and Georgia, which were pushed aside for a closed-door meeting to resolve the more immediate threat. The summit ended with most leaders rushing to their aircraft, many after cancelling press conferences, but Mr Trump proclaimed his own success and that the “US commitment to Nato is very strong”. Analysts argue that Mr Trump would have been better served going to Helsinki with Nato visibly united behind him and not after scaring his allies into silence and perhaps sullen acquiescence.

The visit to Britain opened with a similar blistering attack on his host PM Theresa May in a tabloid interview. By next afternoon’s press conference at Chequers, it seemed that the summer storm had passed and Mr Trump was dismissing the interview as “fake news” despite audio records being available. If in the tabloid Boris Johnson, the recently-resigned foreign secretary, was according to Mr Trump ideally suited to be Prime Minister, by the following day Ms May was the perfect ally and a fit successor to Margaret Thatcher, if not Queen Elizabeth the First herself. This reckless oscillation between diametrically opposite positions may be great tactics in the hotel and real estate business but is destabilising diplomatically.

The worry among many Western analysts and leaders is that this erratic and tactical negotiating style may be exploited by Mr Putin. The New York Times in an op-ed piece bemoans that what “infinitely wiser generations of US statesmen” had achieved when creating global trade regimes and alliances with calculated restraint is being deliberately destroyed now. It even provocatively reasons that “if Trump isn’t already a Russian agent, he certainly behaves like one on every possible occasion”. Others have noted that Mr Trump has never criticised Mr Putin, Xi Jinping or Kim Jong-un, whereas he rarely misses a chance to skewer his allies.

President Putin, on the other hand, is a trained former KGB operative capable of using a wide array of levers to manipulate his antagonists. Strobe Talbott, journalist, analyst and former US deputy secretary of state, recounts US President Bill Clinton in 2000 telling Boris Yeltsin, who chose Mr Putin as his successor, that his choice was flawed as Mr Putin does not “have democracy in his heart”. President George W. Bush was misled when Mr Putin exploited his Christian evangelism by telling stories about his own spiritual experience. Mr Bush claimed about Mr Putin that he got “a sense of his soul”, which he later recanted. Thus, American old-timers fear that Mr Trump having a private meeting without a structured agenda or aides may be walking into a trap. He is expected to probe Russian thinking on Syria, Iran, nuclear weapons, Ukraine and Crimea. When questioned at the Chequers press conference, he simply blamed his predecessor Barack Obama for letting the last two happen. On nuclear weapons, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) lapses in 2021. Mr Trump can hardly have an in-depth discussion on nuclear arms reduction by himself. He may, as in case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), merely obtain a broad statement of intent, leaving experts to negotiate details later.

Vanity Fair calls Mr Trump’s three-nation European trip as a “blunt-force attack”. It remains to be seen if his summitry with Mr Putin shows the same vigour. India having invited President Trump as chief guest at the next Republic Day needs to be cautious. Months before a critical Lok Sabha election the Narendra Modi government can gain or lose depending on what price Mr Trump extracts. If how he treats close allies is any indication, then South Block had better keep the vacuum cleaners handy. Trumpian visits, like tornadoes, leave much debris behind.

Tags: donald trump, vladimir putin, hillary clinton