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Educating Trump: Putin’s task for their G20 meeting

The US and Russia have confirmed that the first face-to-face meeting between US President Trump and Russian President Putin will take place during the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7th July 2017.

Though elements of the US bureaucracy in alliance with the US media have been working overtime to prevent this meeting from taking place, it seems that it will be a proper meeting, with Trump and Putin having comprehensive discussions with each other, and not the kind of short, tense and cursory discussion which is what meetings between Obama and Putin had become.

The fact that this will be a proper meeting between the two Presidents is in contrast to the recent brief encounter President Trump had with Ukrainian President Poroshenko.

Poroshenko contrived that meeting with Trump during his recent trip to Washington.  Not only was that meeting however extremely brief, with the media present throughout it, but there was no subsequent joint press conference, showing that nothing of substance was discussed.

It seems that Poroshenko – more one suspects for propaganda reasons than for any others – wanted to stage an encounter with Trump before Trump met with Putin.  Though that objective was achieved, Trump will almost certainly have been irritated, and his lack of enthusiasm for his Ukrainian guest was all too obvious.

Notwithstanding that the meeting between Trump and Putin will be a proper full-scale meeting, with Trump still dogged by Russiagate it is difficult to see how anything substantive in terms of actual agreements can come out of the meeting.  The best that can be hoped for is that Trump and Putin will at least reach some understanding on Syria, where the US and Russian militaries are simultaneously helping their proxies fight ISIS whilst simultaneously shadow-boxing with each other.  That is hugely distracting and draining of energy, and the only beneficiary from it is ISIS.

The trouble is that even if Presidents Trump and Putin do come to some agreement on Syria, it is far from clear that President Trump is in any position to enforce it on his bureaucracy, some elements of whom are all but guaranteed to want to sabotage it.  Nonetheless it is the only area where any actual progress looks possible.

In my opinion the best thing that might come from the summit is for Trump and Putin to establish a personal relationship with each other which might evolve into something which is altogether much more important.

In his recent expose of the Khan Sheikhoun attack and the US strike on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base Seymour Hersh conveyed from his sources the opinion of President Trump that is started to form within the highest levels of the US defence and security establishment.  This is that President Trump is “not stupid and not unkind”, but that because of his inexperience and lack of self-confidence he is also simultaneously wilful, stubborn and easily led.

That is very much my opinion of President Trump also.  I would go further and add that on key international questions – including relations with Russia, and his wish to prioritise US interests over the neocons’ dangerous world hegemonic project – his instincts are far better (and bring him much closer to the American people) than is true of the elements in the bureaucracy who are fighting him.

The problem is that President Trump has come to the Presidency with a complete lack of foreign policy experience.   He has made some intelligent picks for his foreign policy team.  Secretary of State Tillerson looks like being the most capable foreign minister the US has had for a long time, and whilst Generals Mattis and McMaster are hardly men of genius (as they are sometimes made out to be), they at least come across as as competent and loyal. In addition Trump’s habit of speaking directly to other world leaders rather than holding himself aloof from them (as Barack Obama did) cannot be commended too strongly.  However it is clear that because of his lack of experience President Trump doesn’t known how to evaluate the information and advice he is given and that as a result he is all too easily manipulated, as he was over the Khan Sheikhoun attack, and as he was by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his recent trip to Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately it is also clear that this proud and grossly abused man has become deeply suspicious of those around him, which in view of what he has had to put up with over the last year (including from before he was elected President) in no way surprises me.

What this situation urgently calls for is someone whom Trump is able to trust and like, and who is not afraid of being sacked by him, to be available for Trump to turn to in moments of decision and crisis to talk things through.

Unfortunately none of the US’s traditional allies has a leader who comes close to filling that role.

In Europe the strongest leader is Angela Merkel who has made no secret of her hostility to Trump, and who – as her record has repeatedly shown – cannot be trusted anyway.   Macron – arrogant, manipulative and inexperienced – is in no position to fulfil that role either, whilst Britain is currently sunk in political crisis with its Prime Minister Theresa May to whom Trump seems instinctively to have first looked to for help turning out to be a broken reed.

Further afield, Netanyahu of Israel though worldly and highly intelligent already has a dangerously excessive influence in Washington, and his interests are anyway regional rather than global. Shinzo Abe of Japan, though also highly intelligent and worldly, simply does not have the international stature to fulfil such a role.  Modi of India in his country’s interests is altogether too calculating to speak to Trump with the forthrightness that such a role requires, and can be ruled out as well.

That leaves President Putin of Russia as the obvious person to fulfil this role.  Putin’s experience, intelligence, worldliness and forthrightness, qualify him perfectly for it.

Putin here has an advantage over China’s Xi Jinping.  One of the reasons the Mar-a-Lago summit between Trump and Xi Jinping has gone awry is because instead of talking to Trump with straightforward frankness Xi Jinping addressed him with his typical courtesy.

Here it is important to put aside ethnicist stereotypes.  As anyone who has had dealings with the Chinese can vouch, they can speak with complete frankness when the need requires them to, which is what Xi Jinping has repeatedly done in the several telephone conversations he has had with Trump since the Mar-a-Lago meeting.

However it remains true that China remains something of a ‘face’ culture, and the whole circumstances of the Mar-a-Lago summit – with Trump lavishly entertaining Xi Jinping in his private home, and introducing Xi Jinping to his family there – would have acted to make Xi Jinping want to pull his punches.

The result is the misunderstandings between the two Presidents which I have previously written about.

In Russia by contrast the quality most valued is forthrightness.  Putin exemplifies it, which is why his relations with the likes of Obama, Merkel, Cameron and Hollande – all unused to being spoken to in that way – have become so bad.

What that means is that Trump can always rely on Putin to say it to him exactly as it is, always with respect and courtesy, but invariably so and in all circumstances.

Arguably that is exactly what Trump needs as he gradually finds his way, and everything that is known about him suggests that unlike Obama, Merkel, Cameron, Hollande and the rest, he actually likes it and appreciates it.

Saying that Putin is the person Trump should look to to discuss international questions is of course all very well.  Unfortunately the mere suggestion that the President is looking to the Russian leader for advice is probably the single thing which would be most calculated to raise a storm in Washington.  The wholly artificial indeed nonsensical storm which was stirred up following Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in the Oval Office back in May gives a good foretaste of the likely reaction.

Nonetheless the establishment of some sort of dialogue between Putin and Trump is not only the best way to bring some order to international relations and to stabilise the situation in Syria in particular, but it is also arguably the best way forward for the Trump Presidency itself, helping an inexperienced President to become in the best sense a genuinely transformative President.

Moreover though there would be intense hostility to such a move within the US from the usual suspects in the US bureaucracy and the media, the pattern of recent elections in the US suggests that many people there would welcome it, whilst recent articles in the US’s massive academic media suggests it has a fair amount of elite support as well.

Whether these hopes will be fulfilled or will be stillborn depends ultimately on the evolution of the domestic political situation in the US.  Events in recent weeks however show that Trump’s political position within the US is much stronger than many – including possibly he himself – have realised, whilst there are what may be the first tentative signs that the preposterous Russiagate scandal may be starting to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity.

If so, then despite all the pessimistic forecasts and the likely absence of any substantive agreements, the coming Trump-Putin meeting on 7th July 2017 could plant a seed with the potential to grow into something highly fruitful, not just for the future of international relations but for the Trump Presidency itself.

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