Trump dances to Putin’s tune, putting US democracy and the global order in jeopardy
Kevin Rafferty says the US president’s summit with his Russian counterpart shows he’s willing to stake American democracy and global stability on his own deal making. As the global order unravels, the only question is whether other countries, namely China, can form a new one
Is President Donald Trump a traitor to the United States, a secret Russian plant, a duped puppet under the spell of Vladimir Putin or a businessman seeking a dishonest billion or so – or most of the above?
It is hard to know after the meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki and the press conference where Trump suggested he believed Putin rather than his intelligence agencies about Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
Trump’s assertions brought outrage from all sides in America, including key Republicans hitherto silent about his efforts to overturn the established world order.
Then, 24 hours after the firestorm, Trump tried to clarify, claiming he should not have said “would”, but meant “wouldn’t”: as in “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia”. He accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion, then claimed, “It could be other people. Lot of people out there”. In the middle of his meandering, the lights went out; “must be the intelligence agencies”, he joked.
Watch: Donald Trump claims he misspoke about Russia’s alleged election meddling
Americans have to do their own soul-searching, and ask whether democracy is safe with Trump. For the rest of the world, Trump’s US is no longer a reliable ally. Everyone from Canada and Europe to China, Japan and South Korea, not forgetting the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation, must reassess their relationships.
The summit started with a two-hour private session between Trump and Putin and interpreters. Did they talk about Russia’s seizing Crimea, incursions into east Ukraine, the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal – which Britain blames on Russia – the death of the British woman from Novichok, Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 named Russian intelligence officers for election interference, or the fourth anniversary of the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 – by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile?
What private deals might the two have struck that led Trump to claim that their four hours of meetings transformed the relationship between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers?
Before the meeting, Trump tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse, thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” – to which Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted back, “We agree”.
Putin stuck to his guns that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election. Trump repeated “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia, and then went off on a rant, asking where were Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 missing emails.
The twittersphere immediately lit up, mostly damning Trump. Former CIA director John Brennan accused Trump of treason and claimed the president “is wholly in the pocket of Putin”. US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats used the DNI’s official email service to state unequivocally that Russia not only interfered in the election, but that its “efforts to undermine our democracy” are ongoing.
For once, ailing Senator John McCain was not a lonely Republican voice. House Speaker Paul Ryan declared: “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.” But he did not name or shame Trump.
American democracy is in danger from Trump’s self-centred behaviour. Will the successors of the so-called adults in the room, John Kelly, Mike Pompeo and, I suppose, John Bolton, confront Trump with the truth that the world is not as beholden to his ability to cut deals?
So far, they have not shown the guts to stand up to Trump. In Singapore, Trump claimed his meeting with Kim Jong-un had made the world safer, just as he claimed his four hours with Putin made US-Russia relations great again. “Denuclearisation” of Korea is proving more intractable than Trump boasted, but Pompeo gets angry if asked what is going on.
Trump has a short but determined iconoclastic record, bashing every foundation of the post-war order, including the world trading system, the United Nations, the G7, Nato, Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau – everyone but Putin – the climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal and calling the European Union a “foe” before he flew to Helsinki.
However, Putin alone won Trump’s plaudits: “I called him a competitor, and a good competitor he is. The word competitor is a compliment.”
Trump has boundless faith in himself as a deal maker, though his business record was blotched with bankruptcies, and global political deal making is far more complicated. Trump seems to see himself as leader of a duumvirate – or maybe a triumvirate, including China – ruling the world. Given his continuing business interests, there must be suspicions that he is lining up deals for when he leaves the White House.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is correct that the EU can “no longer completely rely on the White House”, but where does Europe run?
President Xi Jinping faces the most intriguing question of all: does he join Trump and Putin in a triumvirate, knowing that he is certainly smarter than his putative strongmen allies? Or does Xi seek to woo the rest of the world powers to a new global system, which would probably mean a diluted Sinocentric view of the world?
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and former World Bank official and Osaka University professor