Observers of the diplomatic tour that sacked Brussels, laid waste to Britain, and then ended on a nuclear-tipped grand finale in Helsinki know that, like Oscar Wilde, Donald Trump travels the world with nothing to declare but his genius.
And, like the divine Oscar, the less-than-divine Donald is a comedian who mistakes himself for a philosopher, and who knows that if you want to tell people the truth, you should make them laugh. None of the leaders of NATO laughed when Trump told them to raise their defence budgets to 2 per cent of GDP.
Neither did Theresa May double up when Trump mused on an open mike in the garden of Chequers about Boris Johnson’s suitability for her job. Nor did the collective heads of the chuckle fest that is the European Union surrender to an spontaneous outburst of collective jollity when Trump described the EU as an American “foe” when it came to trade.
But these are the jokes, folks. There is much truth to all these statements, and much more truth than the professional politicians dare to admit. The laughs, unfortunately, are on us, and all of them are rather bitter. Trump lies in the gutter press, while looking up at the stars and the autocrats.
Trump was accurate when he said that Theresa May’s latest proposals for Brexit aren’t really the Brexit for which her public voted in 2016 and elected her in 2017. Trump is accurate in noting that the EU’s trade regulations do not create a level playing field; African farmers might well agree with him. And Trump is right that most NATO members, and European states in general, have been passing the tab for their security to the US for decades. That includes “you, Angela”, as Trump referred to Angela Merkel, who presides over a massive budget surplus but last year spent only 1.25 per cent of GDP on defence.
This week, when NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg crawled from the smoking rubble of NATO’s headquarters, he protested that eight NATO states are on course to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence this year—an increase from three states in 2014. Those eight were Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, the UK and the US. Stoltenberg didn’t mention Turkey, which spent 3.1 per cent of GDP on defence last year. But then, every else would prefer it if Turkey spent a bit less.
The truth is that five of those eight states have raised their defence budgets because of Russian expansionism. And while Greece spends a lot on defence because it fears Turkey, Turkey in part spends a lot on defence because it fears Russia. Which brings us and The Donald to today’s meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin.
Before the summit, Trump deployed his usual tactics. First he lowered expectations: there wasn’t a fixed agenda, and maybe nothing was going to come of it. Then he raised the ante, by warning that “NATO, I think, has never been stronger” since his recent dose of tough love. And then he raised it further by tweet, while changing the subject: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
This was a classic piece of Trump truth-telling. It started with a feeling of truthiness, but it wasn’t really true in objective terms, and it ended with raging subjectivity. It’s true that US-Russian relations have declined steadily since Putin came to power in 2000, and declined sharply since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. It’s true that they are now as bad as at any point since the end of the Cold War. But they’re nowhere near as bad as relations between Khrushchev and Kennedy, who came close to war over the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It’s true that the Mueller inquiry has encouraged partisan stupidity and foolishness, notably an auto-destructive drive leftwards from the Democratic membership as it chases the mirage of Trump’s impeachment. But it’s also true that the Mueller inquiry last week secured the indictment of twelve Russian agents on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers during the 2016 election campaign.
Trump has said that it was the DNC’s stupid fault for not securing its servers. You have to laugh, as much at the chutzpah as at the truth-telling. As Oscar Wilde said, art is an illusion that tells the truth. Trump is an artist at droll effrontery.
Wilde also said that the innocence of America is one of its oldest traditions. Some of that sincerely false innocence could be seen last week when Democratic members of Congress condemned Trump for meeting with Putin, given the hacking, the election tweaking, the invasion of Ukraine, the bombing of Syria, and the poisoning of both Russian and British citizens.
The truth is, Putin was a corrupt autocrat in 2008, when Hillary Clinton identified a “reset” with Russia as a key objective of her tenure as Secretary of State. Putin was still a corrupt autocrat in 2012, when Barack Obama was caught colluding on a hot mike with Putin’s prime minister Dmitri Medvedev. Obama asked for “space… particularly with missile defence” until after the 2012 US election. ‘This is my last election,’ Obama said. “After my election I have more flexibility.”
“I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Medvedev said. Vladimir concluded, correctly as it turned out, that Obama’s flexibility amounted to spinelessness – and a willingness to abandon America’s historic allies in NATO and in the Middle East. Russian troops soon filled the vacuum, in the Middle East as on the EU’s southeastern frontier with Ukraine.
The need to repair relations between the US and Russia might have been greater in the past – in the early 1960s, for instance – but it is still urgent now. While the pundits and diplomats of the West were explaining that Russia lacked the economic base to project globally, Putin played a limited hand well, regardless of whether, as in Syria, the price was paid in other people’s blood.
Putin has re-established Russia as an essential and unpredictably subversive player in Europe and the Middle East, and even in the domestic politics of the United States. The second Bush administration was slow on the uptake, and distracted by the War on Terror. The Obama administration preferred not to see what was going on before its eyes. The Trump administration, if we can call Trump’s motley of gofers and fixers an administration, inherited a joke of a Russia policy.
There can be no stability without recognising these truths. Trump acknowledged them when he added John Bolton to his NSA team. He acknowledged them again as he and Putin met before the talks at Helsinki: “Frankly, we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years.” He also expressed the hope that he and Putin would develop “an extraordinary relationship”.
The post-meeting press conference was pretty extraordinary, and not only for the hostility of the American reporters to their president. After so much discord and bad-mouthing, all was concord and concert. Trump and Putin agreed that there had been no collusion between Russian agents and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. They agreed that both of them had wanted Trump to win it. They agreed on cooling down the war in Syria.
“We should be guided by facts,” Putin said in reply to a question about collusion. “Can you name a single fact that would definitely prove collusion? This is nonsense.”
It was also nonsense, in his opinion, for the man from Reuters to assume that he and Trump were even capable of collusion: ‘Where did you get the idea that Trump trusts me or I trust Trump?’ The man from Reuters was assuming what he takes to be the truth. That truth is taken for granted in the Democratic Party and in most of the US media, but the evidence for it has still not appeared. Nor is there much evidence to suggest that the Democrats have fully comprehended what happened in the 2016 election.
So Trump is rehabilitating Putin into the international community, and Putin is doing his bit to rehabilitate Trump. The meeting was a limited success, a feeling for “points of contact” in Putin’s words. The truth, perhaps, is that each needs the other. Reconciliations have been built on worse terms, but they can’t stand on bad terms.
A true friend, Wilde said, stabs you in the front. As it takes a thief to catch one, perhaps it takes one monumental egotist with a corrupt yet sophisticated understanding of truth to catch another. The possibilities for affront and volatility, though, are immense. As Wilde said, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”