Shahid M Amin
THE Helsinki Summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, held on July 16, 2018, has accentuated divisions within the Western alliance. The US and West European countries have been aligned as a solid bloc since the end of the World War-II in 1945, with US as their uncontested leader. It alone possessed the military capability to defend the Western world against any Soviet aggression. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the US has been the world’s sole superpower with Europe acting as its faithful ally. They stood together after 9/11 when the US launched its War on Terror, and in their opposition to Islamist terrorism, which is seen as a common worry. Differences did emerge in 2003 when US and UK decided to invade Iraq, but France and Germany refused to go along.
Still, no one anticipated that the split in the Western bloc would become as sharp as has happened in a year-and-a-half since Trump took over as US President. Almost single-handedly, he has damaged the alliance by his persistent criticism of allies, while showing a soft corner for Russia which, in Europe’s view, still poses the main security threat to it. Similarly, in North America, Trump has shaken the bonds of historic friendship with Canada and Mexico. For these reasons, he is being described as the “wrecker-in-chief” of the Western alliance. He has been acting like a bull in a china shop, unmindful of sensitivities of America’s closest friends. For instance, during his visit to UK last week, he launched a scathing attack on British Prime Minister Theresa May, his host, who has been eager to woo Trump! Later, he tried to backtrack, something he does quite often, when much damage has already been done.
Paradoxically, Trump has shown a soft corner for Putin and Russia, though his European allies continue to see the Russian President as a bullying rival. In fact, the US military and intelligence establishment, as well as most US politicians, have a similar perception of Russia. Trump seems to be cuddling with the enemy, raising deep uneasiness in powerful US circles, with some crying treason. There are, of course, specific issues on which the West has sharp differences with Russia. The Ukraine issue has been causing tension for several years where Russia is accused of interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs by encouraging pro-Russia secessionist elements. Russia showed ruthlessness in seizing Crimea in the face of vigorous opposition by Europe and USA. It has given militarily help to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and exercised the veto at the UN in his favour even when he used gas to crush his opponents. Russian agents allegedly used banned chemical substances to assassinate Putin’s rivals living in exile abroad in Europe. The West also blames him for violation of human rights in dealing with the media and opposition.
In addition to foreign policy concerns regarding Putin, there is the huge contentious issue about Russia’s interference in US presidential elections. There are indications that unfair tactics were used to defame Hillary Clinton during the campaign, which was one reason why Trump won. The FBI enquiry being led by special counsel Mueller looks ominous for Trump, even though in a recent tweet he termed it as a case of “Phony Collusion, a made up Scam”. Trump has been attacking the US intelligence agencies by questioning their integrity and professionalism. This brought a rejoinder from ousted FBI chief James Comey that “attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our country.” Mueller, an ex-head of FBI, is conducting one of the most high-profile political enquiries in US history. Four aides of Trump have been charged so far. In 2016, US intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorized campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on US social media.
Not surprisingly, at the Helsinki Summit, both Trump and Putin poured scorn on suggestions of any such collusion. Trump called the enquiry as “the greatest political witch hunt in history”. He claimed that his meeting with Putin was a success, while the majority view was that Putin had come out far better. Veteran British journalist Simon Tidsall concluded that at Helsinki, “Trump was outshone, outmaneuvered, out-thought and outwitted by Putin. He went into the Summit without adequate preparations, which was the height of folly and vanity. He proved himself, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be a one-man threat to international peace and security, a menace to America’s friends and a rare tonic for its enemies.” The foregoing indicates how much Europe distrusts Trump. He has been quarrelling with Angela Merkel, the much admired German chancellor, accusing that heavy dependence on Russian gas had made Germany a “captive of Russia which totally controlled it”. Germany has been a strong friend of USA but Trump has been injuring German pride by his needless as well as unfair criticism. The ironic thing is that Trump also claims that he enjoys good relations with Merkel and Theresa May. The latter might well be saying that with friends like him, Europe does not need enemies. Trump’s slogan has been “America first” but time has shown that he has been putting himself first and hurting US national interests.
Many observers, notably CNN news channel, his fierce critic, have been predicting that Trump is heading towards impeachment. But this might not happen because Trump’s hard-core white supremacist supporters continue to stand solidly behind him. Trump has also benefitted in public opinion because the US economy has been doing well under him. It has grown at 4%, while unemployment is down at 3.8%, and 2.5 million jobs have been created. He has lowered taxes which is something that always wins popularity. His supporters also agree that US allies have not borne their due share of defence burden and that countries like China have indulged in unfair trade practices to exploit USA. Hence, it would be difficult to find sufficient votes in Congress to impeach Trump. The world must brace itself to live with incorrigible US President for some time to come.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.