In many ways, the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki was the latest bizarre turn in Donald Trump’s pursuit of personal diplomacy, and yet at the same time it confirmed a familiar pattern. US allies are snubbed, belittled, threatened and coerced in the name of US political and economic might.
The US president named the European Union a trade foe, apparently finding it more of a threat than Russia, which he only labelled a competitor in Helsinki. In June this year, he trifled with other members of the G7 grouping and withdrew his consent to the text of the final communique when he could not bully his way through their united front. Last week, Nato members had to consider what had been unthinkable for 70 years, that is, the possibility of US withdrawal from the pact, after Trump issued a threat to ensure that other members increased their military spending.
Meanwhile, the authoritarian leaders of North Korea and Russia are generally appeased. During his May summit in Singapore, the president not only treated Kim Jong-un of North Korea as an equal, but trusted his private assurances about the dismantling of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. On Monday, Trump again refused to condemn Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. Instead, he chose to share the blame over it between the United States and Russia. He also advocated his own domestic political fortunes by delivering a harangue about the ongoing US investigation regarding collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign team.
Of course, President Trump has not been the first and will not be the last US president to subject foreign policy to their own political interests. In 1962, the upcoming mid-term elections provided a major motivation for John F. Kennedy to call for a blockade of Cuba. Besieged by Watergate, Richard Nixon tried to exploit the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1974 Moscow summit to reinstate his presidential credentials. In 1979, Jimmy Carter created a crisis over a Soviet brigade in Cuba for much the same reason. However, while some of these policies tended toward the extreme, they were still in line with the general interests of the United States. As opposed to this, President Trump is systematically destroying the post-1945 security architecture and the delicate balance of power that has favoured his own country.
Agreements that are ambiguous and cannot be enforced undermine, rather than strengthen, US prestige. When the US president is more willing to trust the words of a former KGB agent over the conclusions of the US intelligence community, allies (and US citizens) may rightfully wonder about both the president’s and America’s trustworthiness. When the president uses the post-summit press conference to delegitimise US political institutions, he is weakening the democracy that has been the backbone of America’s global power. Given the interconnectedness of the global economy, the trade wars President Trump started against the EU and China will hurt America as much as its competitors.
Similarly, it was not the United States or Trump that profited from the summit in Helsinki yesterday, but Vladimir Putin. By meeting him, Trump reestablished him as an acceptable negotiating partner at a time when the best a president could have done was to cancel the summit altogether. Trump’s actions in Helsinki implied that acting in opposition US interests had few consequences, which does not bode well for the future. Moreover, Putin had to offer nothing in return for these gains and he did not even try to return Trump’s favour. The Russian president was clear that there was no trust between them and failed to unequivocally deny that he had compromising information on Trump.
Altogether, this summit could not have been more different from earlier US-Soviet or Russian summits in Helsinki. In 1975, Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Helsinki accords that would allow subsequent US administrations to gain an advantage by legitimately criticising Soviet disrespect for human rights. In 1990, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev conducted extensive discussions in a friendly and cooperative atmosphere and agreed on the course to pursue against Kuwait. In 1997, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin could only agree to disagree over the planned expansion of Nato to the Baltic states, and America’s will prevailed in the end. In 2018, the US president thought it more important to side with Putin and put him on an equal footing for the dubious prize of renewed dialogue.
Vladimir Putin could not be more satisfied with how this summit turned out for Russia.
Dr Eszter Simon is a research fellow at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at Birmingham University.