While the details of what actually transpired at the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin one-on-one meeting in Helsinki on substantive issues like Syria, Ukraine, Crimea, Iran nuclear deal, New START, North Korea, Afghanistan, terrorism, China and alleged Russian meddling in the US presidential election in 2016 aren’t available, responses at the joint press conference suggest that the Russian President hasn’t given in anything; it was a PR coup for him. Unlike in Brussels, Mr Trump was extremely respectful and effusive towards Mr Putin. On the other hand, his performance, especially his acceptance of Mr Putin’s version on the Russian hacking, and not siding with the findings of the American intelligence agencies, has caused a huge outrage. While senior CNN journalist Anderson Cooper termed it “disgraceful”, John King has called it “surrender to Putin”. To Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, Mr Trump’s performance was “shameful” and the former director of the CIA John Brennan felt it was “nothing short of treasonous”! Both North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Mr Putin have proved that the big bully doesn’t necessarily always win. The beginning of normalisation of relations between the US and Russia might be ringing alarm bells in Europe.
The Western alliance between the US and Europe, born in the aftermath of World War II and led by the US, has provided a degree of stability and security to the liberal world order for more than 70 years, though it wasn’t always liberal, and many a time it created disorder instead of order. Nato, originally created to combat and contain the spread of Communism and the influence of the Soviet empire, has now 29 members; it has survived thanks to financial and military support of the US. Both of them are creaking as the US, which has been their main anchor is, under Mr Trump, unwilling to provide security to Europe for free. There have been differences in the past as well; the US under Dwight D. Eisenhower opposed the French-British-Israeli attack on the Suez Canal in 1956 and both Germany and France vocally opposed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, what’s new? It’s the manner and intensity with which differences are being aired; the language used and tendency to shun diplomatic channels and wash the dirty linen in public! The recent G-7 summit in Canada said it all.
During his campaign, Mr Trump had called Nato as “obsolete” and “irrelevant”. In his tweets, he has called Nato members as “freeloaders” who don’t spend two per cent of their GDP on defence as committed. Calling Germany a “captive” of Russia and brushing aside the argument that Germany had shut down, coal and nuclear power plants on environmental grounds like the rest of Europe, Mr Trump bristled: “We are protecting Germany. We are protecting France; we are protecting all of these countries.” And they “go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they are paying billions of dollars in to coffers of Russia. I think that’s very inappropriate.” He was referring to $11 billion Baltic sea pipeline for importing Russian gas. According to General Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, 2017 has witnessed the biggest increase in defence expenditure by Nato members, they can’t raise it to four per cent of their GDP as demanded by Mr Trump.
Donald Tusk, the EU president, had reminded recently: “The US doesn’t have and won’t have a better ally than the EU. We spend on defence much more than Russia and as much as China.... Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many.” This elicited a typical transactional Trump tweet: “Nato countries must pay more, and the US must pay less.”
Vigorous efforts, meticulous negotiations and the diplomatic skill of former US President Barack Obama brought Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi on board, and made the COP 21 Paris agreement happen in October 2015. Over 195 countries including most European members signed on. But the billionaire businessman-turned-President called it unfair to the US and walked out! Though many American MNCs have reiterated their commitment to uphold Paris agreement, America’s leadership is missing.
The Iran nuclear deal, JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) hammered out through painstaking negotiations between the US and Iran and P-5 +1 and unanimously approved by the UNSC is a pragmatic deal which caps Iran’s nuclear ambitions and eases crippling UN/US sanctions. It was one of the swan songs of Mr Obama’s presidency. But Mr Trump accused Iran of cheating and decided to exit and reimpose strong sanctions on it, fulfilling his campaign promise, and pleasing the US-Israeli lobby. Other signatories’ assertion that Iran was abiding by the terms of the deal, and IAEA inspectors’ denial of having come across any violations by Iran didn’t deter Mr Trump. His decision to shift the American embassy to Jerusalem wasn’t followed by the European allies.
Ignoring Mr Trump’s announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron and foreign minister Jean Drian have maintained, “the deal is not dead. There is an American withdrawal from the deal.”
The joint statement of Mr Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and UK PM Theresa May says the deal “remains the binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute about the Iranian nuclear programme.” The New Yorker wrote: “For the first time in living memory, America’s European allies have collectively broken with Washington on a major security issue. The joint statement amounted to an accusation that the US, and not Iran, was the country violating international law.” But can they stand up to the US and offer financial assistance to Iran to withstand US sanctions, even at the risk of exposing their companies to heavy fines by the US?
Mr Trump’s extraterritorial application of CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act) on third countries dealing with Iran and Russia adversely impacts a number of countries, including India. It has the potential of becoming the most divisive foreign policy decision of the Trump presidency.
Many accuse Mr Trump of failing to distinguish between friends and foes and focusing foreign policy on narrow economic and security interests, ignoring human rights and humanitarian concerns and courting despots for photo ops. Isn’t there a visible shift away from the idealism and universalism, which helped bind the trans-Atlantic alliance authored by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill?
The US, with a GDP of $19.4 trillion, and the EU, with a combined GDP of $19.9 trillion form the world’s largest economic and strategic alliance. European companies account for 63 per cent of total FDI in the US valued at $1.5 trillion, whereas American companies account for 50 per cent of total FDI in Europe, estimated at $1.7 trillion. These investments generate four million jobs in the US and Europe. The self-proclaimed “stable genius” should realise the significance of the Western alliance.
The writer is a retired Indian diplomat...