The fallout of Trump's first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was still being measured on Sunday. The one tangible outcome of the meeting was a limited cease-fire in southern Syria (more on that later in the newsletter), which swung into effect on Sunday. Otherwise, there was little to show from the confab.
Then, Trump sent heads spinning with his now-customary Sunday tweetstorm.
Sitting once more at one of his golf courses, Trump vowed to “move forward constructively” with Moscow, while also aiming more jabs at the Obama administration and appearing to minimize the significance of alleged Russian interference in last year's election. He seemed to take at face value Putin's denial of Russian involvement in anti-U.S. cyberwarfare, then indicated he would be willing to set up a joint cybersecurity unit with the Russians.
Both these claims led to a heated backlash in the United States, with many mocking Trump both for believing Putin and for contemplating such a partnership. After all, U.S. officials confirmed to my colleagues just this weekend that Russian government hackers were behind recent cyber-intrusions into the business systems of U.S. energy companies — including nuclear power providers. (Trump, perhaps irked by the reaction, later backtracked the cyber unit claim on Twitter.)
Politicians on both sides of the aisle expressed their bemusement. Former defense secretary Ashton B. Carter, who served in the Obama administration, said working with Putin to combat cyberattacks “is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”
In Hamburg, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a rather meek statement about how Trump and Putin had “acknowledged the challenges of cyberthreats and interference in the democratic processes of the United States and other countries.” Its tone of seeming acquiescence sparked fury among certain hawkish U.S. conservatives.
“In a diplomatic depantsing that will have repercussions far beyond Russia, Tillerson’s comments did more to further Russia’s interests than Russian propaganda outlets could have possibly hoped to accomplish themselves,” wrote the neoconservative Weekly Standard.
“Can you imagine Ronald Reagan in 1981 going abroad and attacking Jimmy Carter for not doing more to stand up to Soviet aggression?” asked Max Boot in Foreign Policy. “Imagine FDR and Tojo meeting in 1942 and agreeing to move on from that little unpleasantry at Pearl Harbor.”
To be sure, no one in Russia is placing much stock in any meaningful strategic alliance with the United States. On Sunday, Tillerson warned Moscow after meetings in Kiev about its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. He indicated that the current U.S. sanctions would not be lifted unless Russia “reverses the actions” that triggered the crisis.
But the “dysfunction” in the U.S.-Russia relationship is “useful” for Putin, argued Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center in Washington, “since it reinforces the long-standing narrative that Washington aims to contain Russia geopolitically and degrade it economically, with the ultimate objective of regime change. This narrative yields one inescapable conclusion for the majority of Russian voters: Only Vladimir Putin is capable of guaranteeing their safety and well-being.”
Moreover, Putin must surely be pleased by the disquiet of other politicians in Europe. Outside its august chambers, the G-20 summit was confronted by the usual array of mostly leftist, anti-capitalist protesters who see the G-20 as a vehicle for unfettered globalization and exploitation. But there was also discord within.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who will host Trump for Bastille Day celebrations later this week, warned of the disharmony facing the international community, stoked in part by Trump's ultra-nationalism and apathy toward much of the international order. “Our world has never been so divided,” he said. “Centrifugal forces have never been so powerful. Our common goods have never been so threatened.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her disappointment in Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. “Wherever there is no consensus that can be achieved, disagreement has to be made clear,” said Merkel, pointing to a united statement from the bloc's 19 other nations in support of the pact. “Unfortunately — and I deplore this — the United States of America left the climate agreement. I am gratified to note that the other 19 members of the G-20 feel the Paris agreement is irreversible.”
“Overall, the trip embraced nationalism much more than internationalism,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico. “There was further rejection of free trade, nothing on climate change, disrespect of free media, and a pro forma pushback versus Russian interference in our politics.”
Perhaps the most scathing critique of Trump at the G-20 came from Chris Uhlmann, the political editor of the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp., whose televised segment recapping Trump's trip went viral over the weekend.
“He was an uneasy, lonely, awkward figure at this gathering, and you got the strong sense that some of the leaders are trying to find the best way to work around him,” Uhlmann said. He called out Trump for showing “no desire and no capacity to lead the world,” for whiffing at the chance to make a strong statement on the threat posed by North Korea, and for being an attention-seeking celebrity who “barks out bile in 140 characters, who wastes his precious days as president at war with the West’s institutions like the judiciary, independent government agencies and the free press.”
Uhlmann, a somewhat conservative figure in his own country who has railed against “cultural Marxism,” concluded with this devastating assessment: “We learned that Donald Trump has pressed fast-forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader. He managed to isolate his nation, to confuse and alienate his allies and to diminish America.”
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