As President Donald Trump met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16 I was reminded of President Ronald Reagan's summits with the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik, Iceland a year later and in Washington DC in 1987. I had followed these momentous meetings from the US capital as I now observed this summit from New York. The contexts were completely different as were the personalities and temperament of the summiteers. What struck me though and what has been ignored, amidst the visceral feelings that this meeting has evoked among his critics, was Trump's reference to the need for the US and Russia, who hold ninety percent of the world's nuclear weapons, to seriously negotiate to reduce them. The Reagan-Gorbachev meetings had led to curbs in the nuclear arsenals of both states but now strategic arms control is of no interest. The focus is on Trump's European tours impact on America's international standing and alliance structure. This is sad for the US and Russia have to become serious on nuclear arms reduction.
Trump's critics are outraged that he went ahead with the meeting despite the indictment of twelve Russian military intelligence officers for hacking into the servers and communications of the Democratic Party before the 2016 Presidential election. Even more, they found Trump's responses at his joint media interaction with Putin after the summit to be shameful and disgraceful. On his return to Washington Trump has sought to clarify his remarks but the damage has been done. Trump's supporters, however, assert that his desire to improve relations with Russia constitutes sound policy and that he did not dilute any sanction against Russian entities. The fact is that these opposite reactions are symptomatic of a deeply divided country where no political or social force is looking for common ground to bridge its multiple chasms.
For Trump, the ongoing inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election is an open and painful sore. He is simply unable to set it aside or ignore it. He seems to feel that it erodes his electoral success and his standing as President. Thus, standing alongside Putin he was unable to endorse the indictment of the Russian military officers by the US Justice Department. He chose to follow the middle path. While he expressed confidence in his intelligence people he also noted that Putin had 'powerfully' rebutted the charge of interfering in the US election. From there he went on to criticise the special counsel investigation and its adverse impact on US-Russia relations. No surprise then that some Senators and Congressmen belonging to his own Republican party are deeply embarrassed and had to strongly criticise him. Naturally the US intelligence community is very angry at Trump not endorsing their findings and taking Putin publicly to task.
Only one senator, Rand Paul, has had the courage to state that many countries, including the US, have sought to intervene in the elections of other countries; hence, all this moral indignation is wrong. He emphasised that the US needs to take Russia to task but also harden its own cyber defences. Rand also correctly traced the current differences between Russia and NATO to the organisations member states refusal to adhere to the assurance given to Russia when Germany was unified. At that time the US pledged that NATO would not be expanded eastwards. Now that has happened it has led to the rise of hard nationalism in Russia which in turn has contributed to Crimea's absorption.
There is undoubted strategic logic to the US establishing a positive relationship with Russia. Increasingly, America's strategic competitor will be China. In the current China-Russia relationship it is the former that carries more international weight largely because of its economic strength. Hence, if Trump wishes to draw Russia away from China towards the US he is being perspicacious. However, Putin raises atavistic feelings among America's liberal intelligentsia as also in its European allies. He is looked upon as a cruel, autocratic and expansionist thug—the word used often in the US mainstream media to describe him. Instead of using the quiet arts of persuasion to bring the liberals and the country's European allies around to this viewpoint Trump is trampling all over their sensibilities and seems to be revelling in doing so. He obviously feels that his US constituency sees the logic of his thinking especially when he charges the Europeans for not paying their dues for NATO.
The real issue is if Trump is trying to downgrade the US-Europe partnership which has been fundamental to world order or is merely seeking to bend Europe more to his will. His recently concluded European visit is raising doubts among some US liberals and in Europe that he wants to cut Europe adrift. Europe is asking that if this was not so why he was openly critical of his European peers and his own intelligence services and so full of praise for Putin and so eager to develop a constructive US-Russia partnership. All this notwithstanding It is doubtful if the American establishment will allow Trump to go so far as to fundamentally damage the Trans-Atlantic Partnership even though the manoeuvring space of an American President within his own system is immense.
At this time it will be prudent for India to steer clear of the contentions both within the US polity and between the US and Europe and focus on developing state to state ties independently with America and Europe.