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The ‘Reverse Nixon’ and New Nero: Where to Focus After the Trump-Putin Summit

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It would be too easy to simply jump on all of the stereotypical bandwagoning going on across most of the world’s media (especially the American) coming out of the Trump-Putin summit that took place this week briefly in Helsinki. It was most certainly NOT a bravura performance by the American president, but honestly that really is low-hanging fruit to focus any commentary on. Instead, let us consider some more subtle but nevertheless crucially important takeaways as we move on from Helsinki and are still left to consider what’s next for the incredibly poor Russian-American relationship.

1.Trump has unfortunately become the ‘reverse Nixon’

While most millennials may not recall or understand the importance of this historical reference, it bears repeating: Nixon, as Vice-President to Eisenhower, was an adamant opponent of establishing relations with China. Flash forward 15 years or so to his own presidency and suddenly Nixon himself was going over to China and opening up a new world of diplomatic contact and relations. “Only Nixon could go to China” was the refrain, meaning it was exactly because of his historical animosity toward the country that the American people would trust him making new maneuvers toward China. With Trump, alas, it is the exact reverse: even if he had an important policy innovation or sound diplomatic strategy for creating new relations with Russia, it wouldn’t matter. If only Nixon could go to China, then today literally ANYONE can go to Russia except Trump.

2.The ‘Putin smirk’ lives!!!!

Putin has a long-established and well-deserved reputation for teasing and even somewhat bullying/lecturing Western media, especially when American/British journalists think they have damning information or uncomfortable questions for him. There are few world leaders today who relish the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with foreign journalists as much as Putin. This is simply unquestionable fact. He also loves having the upper hand or at least giving the impression that he does on the world stage. Make no mistake: while he has steadfastly denied any direct Russian meddling in the American elections of 2016, he has absolutely LOVED every single minute of hand-wringing and treason-talking that has taken place in America because of the possibility. The Helsinki Summit proved this beyond measure. It is quite possible this was one of the quietest summit performances ever given by Putin. The reason for it was embarrassingly simple: all he really needed to do was sit there and look bemused 80% of the time while Trump mangled his own native English language trying to do verbal acrobatics around awkward questions about election interference. If Putin is famous for his ‘I know something you don’t know’ smirk, then the Helsinki Summit gave us all one of the most permanent exhibitions of said trademark in recent memory.

3.The regression of President Trump’s relationship with his own Intelligence Community will continue

Trump’s uncomfortable declaration that Putin gave him a very strong and powerful denial of election meddling (and therefore that should be good enough for all present to believe) had one very significant but little identified post-summit domestic consequence: it was yet another example of the Commander-in-Chief basically throwing his own Intelligence Community and the analysis of all 17 of its member agencies under the bus in favor of a foreign leader’s opinion who had every reason to not tell the truth. Trump’s relationship with the IC has been complicated even before his presidency began but has only become more antagonistic and unfriendly in his first year in the Oval Office. The Helsinki Summit did nothing to repair that relationship or even give anyone reason to search for a kernel of hope that a new more positive foundation could be established. If the IC in general felt the President of the United States was not in its corner before the summit, then it had no doubt of that impression walking away from it.

4.The summit only deepened Trump’s political Catch-22

Most media and pundit circles in America are flabbergasted by Trump’s refusal to believe the obvious when it concerns an attempt by Russian intelligence to hack/influence the 2016 election. But for Trump it is not so simple as admitting to the obvious: he clearly has made his own mental connection whereby admitting that Russia meddled leads to a semi-confession that he may not have legitimately won the election. Many Americans, if not most, on the liberal side also want to believe in this connection. Unfortunately, that connection is most likely NOT true. It is entirely plausible (even likely) that Russia to some degree attempted to meddle in the election AND Trump legitimately won the electoral college that gave him the presidency. Current American media seem to be treating the two as if they cannot be mutually exclusive when in all likelihood they are just that: Russia meddled; Trump won the electoral college. If we could get into a time machine, go back in time, and zap Russia with a special ‘removal of meddling’ laser beam it would not mean we would be analyzing the foreign policy of President Hillary Clinton today. It would most likely still be President Trump’s foreign policy. But Trump, despite his constant lamentations of so-called fake news and trying to make all mainstream media appear like sycophants of the Democratic Party, has clearly given in to the overall media impression that the admission of one sin (Russian meddling) results in the confession of another (he did not legitimately win the presidency). Consequently, stuck in this Catch-22, he continues to side with the ridiculous statement of ‘not having enough facts’ to know what really happened and it seems like it should be ok for him to just believe Putin at his word.

5.Is Putin the new Nero?

Remember the old adage, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” After the Helsinki Summit it seems at least plausible to ask if Putin is the new Nero, fiddling away happily oblivious while the American media burns. If the original point of Russian election meddling was not to actually sway the results of the election (no one in the Russian Intelligence Community really believes they could engineer that much power over the American electorate) but to just cause general chaos, havoc, and discontent within American society, then it is hard to imagine a more successful disinformation intelligence campaign than this one. American media is in a tizzy and the louder the cacophony of discontent rings after the Helsinki Summit, the crazier social media becomes in the never-ending battle between liberals and conservatives over what to do about it. Facebook alone has blown up since the Helsinki meeting with memes about treason, only to be countered by photographs of prominent Democratic congressmen/women smiling and laughing happily in the past during their own meetings with Putin. The discord and disconnect only grows. The anger and counter-anger only gets more intense and indignant. And all the while, in a lush suite of opulence deep inside the Kremlin, Vladimir Vladimirovich sits at his desk, smirking, fiddle in hand.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Americas

Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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“Choose sides” is practically a bogus idea for US military partners

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“Choosing sides” is practically a non-starter for US military allies such as Japan and South Korea. These nations, first and foremost military allies of the US, are forging cordial and productive ties with other countries based on military alliances with the US. The nature and level of partnerships varies greatly from those of allies, despite the fact that they appear to be quite heated at times.

Military concerns have been less important in the postwar period, but economic concerns have been extremely heated, social and cultural interactions have been close, and the qualitative differences between cooperative relations and allies have gotten confused, or have been covered and neglected.

Some unreasonable expectations and even mistakes were made. In general, in the game between the rising power and the hegemony, it is undesirable for the rising power to take the initiative and urge the hegemony’s supporters to select a side. Doing so will merely reinforce these countries’ preference for hegemony.

Not only that, but a developing country must contend with not only a dominant hegemony, but also a system of allies governed by the hegemony. In the event of a relative reduction in the power of the hegemony, the strength of the entire alliance system may be reinforced by removing restraints on allies, boosting allies’ capabilities, and allowing allies’ passion and initiative to shine.

Similarly, the allies of the hegemonic power are likely to be quite eager to improve their own strength and exert greater strength for the alliance, without necessarily responding to, much alone being pushed by, the leader. The “opening of a new chapter in the Korean-US partnership” was a key component of the joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States following the meeting of Moon Jae-in and Biden. What “new chapter” may a military alliance have in a situation of non-war?

There are at least three features that can be drawn from the series of encounters between South Korea and the United States during Moon Jae-visit in’s to the United States: First, the withdrawal of the “Korea-US Missile Guide” will place military constraints on South Korea’s missile development and serve as a deterrence to surrounding nations. The second point is that, in addition to the Korean Peninsula, military cooperation between the US and South Korea should be expanded to the regional level in order to respond to regional hotspots. The third point is that, in addition to military alliances, certain elements in vaccinations, chips, 5G, and even 6G are required. These types of coalitions will help to enhance economic cooperation.

Despite the fact that Vice President Harris wiped her hands after shaking hands with Moon Jae-in, and Biden called Moon Jae-in “Prime Minister” and other rude behaviors, the so-called “flaws” are not hidden, South Korea still believes that the visit’s results have exceeded expectations, and that Moon Jae-in’s approval rate will rise significantly as a result.

The joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States addresses delicate subjects such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Of course, China expresses its outrage. It is widely assumed that this is a “private cargo” delivered by Biden’s invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit the United States.

Moon Jae-in stated that he was not pressured by Biden. If this is correct, one option is that such specific concerns will not be handled at all at the summit level; second, South Korea is truly worried about the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns and wishes to speak with the US jointly.

South Korea should be cognizant of China’s sensitivity to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns. When it comes to China-related concerns, the phrasing in the ROK-US joint statement is far more mild than that in the ROK-Japan joint declaration. Nonetheless, the harm done to South Korea-China ties cannot be overlooked.

South Korea highlights the “openness” and “inclusiveness” of the four-party security dialogue system, which allows South Korea to engage to some extent. South Korea will assess the net gain between the “gain” on the US side and the “loss” on the Chinese side. China would strongly protest and fiercely respond to any country’s measures to intervene in China’s domestic affairs and restrict China’s rise.

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Political Violence and Elections: Should We Care?

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The next Sunday 6th of June, the Chamber of Deputies along with 15 out of the 32 governorships will be up for grabs in Mexico’s mid-term elections. These elections will be a crucial test for the popularity of the president and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). They currently hold majority in the Lower Chamber of the national Congress, and these elections could challenge this.

Recent national polls indicate that the ruling party, MORENA, is still the most popular political force in Mexico, and they are poised to win not only several governorships, but also several municipalities. They are also expected to maintain control of the Lower  Chamber, although with a loss of a few seats. In order to ensure MORENA keeps its current majority in the Congress, they have decided to pursue an electoral alliance with the Green Party (PVEM) and the Labout Party (PT). It is expected that with this move, they will be able to ensure the majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress.

There is, however, another aspect that is making the headlines in this current electoral process: The high levels of political and electoral violence, The current electoral process is the second most violent since 2000. The number of candidates that have been assassinated is close to 30% higher than the mid-term electoral process of 2015. More than 79 candidates have been killed so far all across the country.

Insecurity in Mexico has been an ongoing issue that has continued to deteriorate during the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). AMLO has continually criticised his predecessors and the valid problems of their approaches to insecurity in Mexico along with the War on Drugs policy. However, to date, he has yet to offer a viable alternative to tackle the security problems he inherited. During his campaign, AMLO coined the phrase “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) to describe his approach toward improving security in Mexico. He believed that to successfully tackle the worsening crisis of insecurity, the structural conditions that forced people to commit crimes had to be addressed first: Namely inequality, poverty, low salaries, lack of access to employment etc. To date, insecurity in Mexico continues to worsen, and this had become evident during the current electoral process.

This nonsensical approach to insecurity has resulted in the first three years of his government reaching over 100,000 murders, along with the nearly 225,000 deaths as a result of the pandemic.

What should be particularly worrying in this spiral of violence, is the prevalence of political and electoral violence during the current process. Political violence represents not only a direct attack on democratic institutions and democracy itself, but it also compromises the independence, autonomy, and integrity of those currently in power, and those competing for positions of power. It affects democracy also because political violence offers a way for candidates to gain power through violent means against opposition, and this also allows organised crime to infiltrate the state apparatus.

Political violence is a phenomenon that hurts all citizens and actors in a democracy. It represents a breeding ground for authoritarianism, and impunity at all levels of government. This limits the freedoms and rights of citizens and other actors as it extinguishes any sort of democratic coexistence between those currently holding political power and those aspiring to achieve it. Political violence also obstructs the development of democracy as it discredits anyone with critical views to those in power. This is worrying when we consider that 49% of those assassinated belong to opposition parties. This increase in political violence has also highlighted AMLO´s inability to curtail organised crime and related violence.

Assassination of candidates is only the tip of the iceberg. Organised criminal groups have also infiltrated politics through financing of political campaigns. Most of electoral and political violence tends to happen an municipal levels, where it is easier for criminal groups to exert more pressure and influence in the hope of securing protection, and perpetuate impunity, or securing control over drug trafficking routes. This should be especially worrisome when there is close too government control in certain areas of the country, and there is a serious risk of state erosion at municipal level in several states.

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