The world is still reeling under the shock caused by the biggest public capitulation in history of an American president to a Russian leader. The theories to find an explanation for the strange behaviour of president Donald Trump at his press conference in Helsinki after his summit meeting with president Vladimir Putin are legion.
Some believe that the global architecture built since the end of the Cold War collapsed in front of our very eyes when Trump turned into Putin’s poodle or puppet. Others think that he was trying to distract attention from the gathering evidence that Russia had interfered in the US elections by publicly cosying up with Putin in a bid to show that he had nothing to hide. Some subscribe to the charitable theory that he was seeking to cut down expenditure on defence and benefit from trade by building a new equation with Russia. But all the theories still leave the Americans with a president willing to sacrifice the reputation of the nation and the stature of his office for his own reasons, honourable or otherwise.
Trump’s obsequious posture towards Putin at Helsinki was all the more striking in comparison with the way he treated the closest allies of the US like Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel and Theresa May at different meetings. He threatened them with strong action, thoughtless of the consequences of shaking the foundations of G-7, NATO and US-UK relations. In contrast, Trump declined to press Putin on a single policy issue, and sided with Putin over his own intelligence chiefs in denying Russia’s interference in the US elections. Putin seemed astonished that he was receiving bouquets all the way and he was not called upon to make any concessions. Moreover, Trump acknowledged Russia as a rightful and indispensable power, and described the Obama Administration’s attempts to isolate Russia as misguided and counterproductive. “Better than super,” Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told one of the Russian news agencies, which had predicted that nothing good would come out of the summit.
The most sensational statement that Trump made was that “our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago.” But we heard no explanation as to how this sudden transformation occurred. He spoke vaguely about nuclear weapons, global stability, Syria, Ukraine and Korea, but the status quo remained intact. Putin gave no concessions and it appeared that none was sought. And the latest is that Trump has invited Putin to visit Washington later this year.
It seems simplistic to argue, as some have done, that Trump desires to have the limelight on him all the time and he thought that after all the attention he grabbed in Singapore, he wanted a meeting with Putin. In his usual style, he kept everyone in the dark, leaving even his closest aides wondering what his objectives were. No doubt, the uppermost thought in his mind when he asked for the summit was the Mueller investigation and the charging of 12 Russian citizens for meddling in the elections. Putin appeared ready with a suggestion that the Russians could be questioned by the US intelligence, but Putin ignored it at the press conference and welcomed it subsequently in a low key. He seemed to think that by absolving Putin of all responsibility for meddling, he would also escape the ignominy of an impeachment after the November elections.
Trump explained, of course, that the summit was in the true tradition of US diplomacy, which made strenuous efforts for peace and reconciliation all through history. Having won the war together, there was no justification for starting the Cold War, which resulted in an adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union. He blamed America first for this foolish adventure and appeared to want to extricate the US from a vicious circle. Such a serious agenda could not have been pursued so lightly without solid preparations. To denounce the more than 70 years of history to battle with the Soviet Union is to disown the whole legacy of the battle for capitalism, which was won. The secrecy around the details of the one-on-one meeting between the two leaders is, therefore, a matter of concern and mystery to the general public.
Even those in the administration are still working to figure out what agreements were reached between them. Paradoxically, indications have been given that verbal agreements were reached on some important issues."It was overall successful and led to productive agreements," Putin said of the summit at a meeting of ambassadors in Moscow. "We will have to wait and see, of course, what turn the events will take, all the more so as certain forces in America are trying to downplay and disavow the results of the Helsinki summit."
The situation became worse confounded when a US official said, "Our relationship with Russia and our positions are the same today as they were on the 15th. The Helsinki meeting was an opportunity to see where the relationship could go in the future." One Western diplomat predicted that any commitments Trump made to Putin at the summit would not lead to tangible changes in US policy toward Russia.
A State Department spokesperson dismissed talk of "agreements" and said Wednesday that there were three "modest" takeaways from the meeting "that we are currently assessing. "These proposals include a high-level working group with business leaders from both countries, convening an expert council of political scientists, diplomats, former diplomats and former military officials from the United States and from Russia; and that the US and Russian national security councils will meet to discuss follow-up meetings.
The Washington community is now quite accustomed to expect the unexpected from Trump. The Helsinki summit reached a new low in terms of available information about what really happened between the two leaders when they were together, except for two interpreters. There is a move to obtain the notes of the interpreters, if no recording of the conversations turns up. Meanwhile, the focus is on the next summit in Washington at which Trump and Putin are likely to articulate their agreements.