Putin’s man in Washington

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If the last few disastrous days of American diplomacy prove anything it’s this: Vladimir Putin’s investment in Donald Trump has paid off far beyond the Russian dictator’s wildest dreams.

As I said on the radio this morning, it’s like Putin dropped five bucks on a scratch-off lottery ticket at the corner gas station and found the million-dollar jackpot underneath.

From President Trump’s attempted demolition of the NATO alliance at its summit in Brussels, to his undermining of British Prime Minister Theresa May that further destabilized her already tenuous hold over her own government, to describing the European Union as a foe of the United States, to his final lickspittle, groveling performance at the feet of Vladimir Putin before the eyes of the world’s media in Helsinki, this was a week unlike any we have ever seen in modern American foreign policy.

As Putin’s top diplomat, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, put it, from their perspective the Trump-Putin meeting in Finland wasn’t just “better than super,” it was “fabulous.”

And why shouldn’t the Russians assess it that way? In their joint press conference, Trump openly rejected the consensus of his own government and embraced Putin’s “powerful denial” that Russia had in any way interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump said it was the United States that was responsible for tense relations between the two countries, both his predecessor in the Oval Office and the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian meddling.

Certainly nothing he was willing to point the finger at Putin for, like waging covert war in eastern Ukraine, or using military force to redraw international borders by forcibly annexing Crimea, or shooting down a civilian air liner over Ukrainian territory in 2014, or the use of a deadly chemical weapon on British soil in an attempt to assassinate a Putin critic earlier this year.

In fact, Trump didn’t mention even one of those.

And why would he? When you’re someone else’s puppet, they’re the one pulling strings. Trump just acts, and speaks, accordingly.

Trump at NATO: Making anarchy great again

(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)
(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)

 

For years now I’ve had students in my international conflict class read an old article by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” In it Mearsheimer, a noted international relations realist, predicts Europe will return to the bad old days of unstable multi-polar balance of power dynamics which historically led to wars among the continental great powers.

Mearsheimer was writing in 1990, just as the Cold War was ending, and where others saw a bright, cooperative, and peaceful future, he saw something much darker:

We may, however, wake up one day lamenting the loss of order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations. For untamed anarchy is what Europe knew in the forty-five years of this century before the Cold War, and untamed anarchy – Hobbes’s war of all against all – is a prime cause of armed conflict. Those who think that armed conflicts among the European states are now out of the question, that the two world wars burned all the war out of Europe, are projecting unwarranted optimism onto the future …

Peace in Europe during the Cold War was, in Mearsheimer’s analysis, a product of the order imposed by two roughly equally matched, nuclear-armed, superpowers. With the Cold War over, that bipolar order went with it, paving the way for a return to the old, destructive patterns of history.

With the order of the Cold War gone, the states of Europe would once again be forced to put their own security first. Neither the prosperity that comes with membership in a common economic market, nor joint adherence to democratic norms and values, would be sufficient to guarantee the safety of European states in system characterized by anarchy and the requirements of self-help. Nuclear proliferation, at the very least to Germany, was assumed. War was not out of the question.

But the old patterns never actually came back, despite Mearsheimer’s prediction. Thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, Europe remains peaceful, prosperous, and democratic. And neither the Germans, nor any other European state, has developed nuclear weapons.

The key question I ask my students is why. Why was Mearsheimer wrong?

The answer is simple: Mearsheimer assumed that with the Cold War over and the threat posed by the Soviet Union gone, the United States would abandon Europe and the NATO alliance would dissolve. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Perhaps until now.

President Trump is now in Brussels for the NATO summit, and has spent his time, both in tweet before and in person while there, berating America’s allies, demanding they increase defense spending (they already have), and claiming the alliance is a raw deal for the US that disproportionately benefits Europe while we’re left holding the bag.

Every public statement from the president further undermines confidence in America’s commitments. Every new statement, every new set of plaudits thrown by Trump at Vladimir Putin’s feet, creates a little more doubt about whether we will stand in common defense of our allies. With all this, our allies must think, perhaps they should look to their own security once again.

And so, Mearsheimer might say, begins the return to form.

When it comes to understanding international politics, realists like Mearsheimer suggest that it all comes down to the long game. Given time, the standard patterns of interaction that characterize international relations will reassert themselves, sure as one season follows another. Wait long enough and history, or some close variant of it at least, really does repeat itself.

I hate to think that Trump is making Mearsheimer right after all.

The art of the what?

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The more the president talks about his approach to negotiation, the more painfully obvious it is he didn’t write a single word of The Art of the Deal. He probably didn’t even read it.

Take, for example, Trump’s head-scratching belief that he has a viable “proposal for peace” between the Palestinians and Israel:

“We have a great proposal for the Palestinians, it covers a lot of the things we discussed over the years.”

However, Trump then noted that the U.S. had taken the issue of Jerusalem out of the talks. “They never got past Jerusalem. We took it off the table. We don’t have to talk about it anymore.”

Given that the status of Jerusalem is one of the most critical issues for the Palestinians, and an essential element of any future two-state solution, this simply defies common sense, as Joshua Keating points out over at Slate:

I may not have written The Art of the Deal, but I’m pretty sure that this is not how negotiations work. If I were applying for a job and negotiating salary, benefits, and vacation days, then told that I would be getting no vacation days at all so that the issue would be “off the table,” I don’t think this would make me more willing to compromise on salary and benefits.

The Palestinians certainly aren’t buying what Trump is selling either.

“Those who say that Jerusalem is off the table are saying that peace is off the table. The holy city is in the hearts of each and every Palestinian, Arab, Christian and Muslim, and there will be no peace without East Jerusalem being the sovereign capital of the State of Palestine,” (Palestinian peace negotiator) Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

Trump seems to think he can blackmail the Palestinians to the negotiating table by threatening to withhold aid, as he did in Davos yesterday. But the Palestinian Authority isn’t some porn star who’s silence he can buy, or some contractor he can stiff on the bill.

“Trump could buy many things with his money, but he won’t be able to buy the dignity of our nation,” (Erekat) added.

As for that “great proposal” of a peace deal that Trump claims is on offer, the Palestinians have seen enough to expect it to be a farce. It denies them a capital in Jerusalem, allows Israel to annex West Bank settlements, gives Israel control over Palestinian airports, seaports, maritime and land borders, and leaves the Israeli military free to continue to operate in what is supposed to be a sovereign Palestinian state.

There’s no deal to be had there. And Trump can neither bully, nor buy, his way to one if those are the terms.

Mine’s bigger

missile envy

Somehow, you knew it was eventually going to come to this:

At one level you can, and probably should, dismiss this as more silly posturing and insecure boasting on the part of President Trump. That said, in absolute terms he’s right: the US nuclear arsenal is bigger and more powerful than not just North Korea’s, but pretty much everyone else’s as well. And as I said on the radio this morning, the logic of nuclear deterrence is still operable and neither side seems irrational enough, at least not yet, to purposely initiate a nuclear exchange.

But that doesn’t mean all is well either. As Axios reports this morning, there is fear within Trump’s own administration that the president could blunder into war accidentally:

What they’re saying: “Every war in history was an accident,” said one administration insider. “You just don’t know what’s going to send him over the edge.”

Last year ended with all kinds of dire warnings and predictions of the odds of war (including nuclear war) between the US and North Korea. But to close this post on an optimistic note, North Korea today reactivated the border hotline with South Korea, restoring a direct line of communication between the two governments and gesturing toward a possible thaw in relations.

Let’s hope that has more lasting impact than Trump’s juvenile missile envy tweet.