U.S. President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on July 16. Photo by David Silpa/UPI | License Photo
July 23 (UPI) -- It ought to have been a "no-brainer" that dialogue was essential between the United States and by far the largest geographical entity on earth, the Russian Federation, more so as the interests of both countries could through agreement intersect rather than collide.
The hysteria that surrounds any U.S. President Donald Trump outreach to Moscow became several decibels higher after the Trump-Vladimir Putin Helsinki summit. The charge first made by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign of Trump being a "Russian puppet" was repeated even by some members of the Republican Party, who were caught within the vortex of the Washington Beltway's campaign to either unseat or paralyze Trump.
Unsurprisingly, European powers such as Germany and France were the silent cheerleaders of an assault on the 45th U.S. president from within his own party, given that bad relations between Moscow and Washington are a precondition for the primacy of Europe over Asia in U.S. foreign policy, as has been the case since the present strategic construct followed across both sides of the Atlantic were fashioned in 1945.
Since then, while much may have changed across the globe, the mindset of the Atlanticist establishment has remained static. The overwhelming majority of those who depend for their "bread,butter and jam" on jobs within the administration or the think tanks and university departments surrounding U.S. policymakers face an existential threat, were a U.S. president to move away from an Atlanticist to an Indo-Pacific world, the way Trump has indicated will take place.
Trade war with China
He has followed up such an intention by launching a trade war on China, a country vital to personal and corporate bottom lines across commercial and political hubs in the United States. Small wonder that Helsinki has been used by them to create an atmosphere so toxic for Trump that he will henceforward concentrate only on golf and leave policy to what gets termed the "adults in the room," i.e., those anchored to Atlanticist policies that are by now not merely anachronistic but in many respects actually hostile to the interests of the United States.
Of course, this is on the assumption that it makes no sense for the United States to bear much of the cost of the artificial (since 1987, by which time Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had reduced the glaciers of the Cold War to the size of a few ice cubes) presentation of Moscow as the enemy No. 1 of the United States when the only "threat" represented by that capital was to the primacy within Europe of the Franco-German alliance.
Since then, China has become a formidable competitor to U.S. influence even while contributing to U.S. affluence. Except to those clinging to the tattered logic in refusing to acknowledge that the world has changed since 1945, it is Beijing and not Moscow that represents the most potent threat to U.S. primacy. Trump's "crime" is that he has acted on this in a manner far more vigorous than any of his predecessors did. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to match even 15 percent of their tough talk on China with substantive action, while Barack Obama, the Hamlet of the presidency, hovered on the brink of change without actually dipping into the water. Both on Russia (to appease the Atlanticist lobby in his pwn party) and on China, Trump has been far tougher than any of his predecessors of the 21st century.
However, this has not blocked the Beltway from seeking to put him down
Trump's trade war on China was clearly the geopolitical trigger for the current paroxysms of outrage against the U.S. president. This is hurting wallets and bank accounts, or could do so, should Peter Navarro and John Bolton continue to have the ear of the president, more than committed Atlanticists such as James Mattis or Dan Coats. The summit with Putin has presented an opportunity for the Washington Beltway to try once again to either get Trump removed through the obliging Robert Mueller or ensure his participation in policy gets reduced to insignificance for the remainder of what they hope will be a single term in office.
Unlike Russia, which has almost no influence in Washington, China is a PR superpower in the United States. This continues a tradition going back more than a century. During the early part of the 20th century, newly republican China was an obsession with several in the United States, especially to missionaries who sought to "harvest souls" in that vast country. The takeover of power by Mao Zedong in 1949 temporarily set back relations between Washington and Beijing. So much so that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested to Jawaharlal Nehru's sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit that India take the place of China as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, an offer Nehru spurned.
Even after the 1962 border conflict, India continued to back Communist China's claim to the U.N. Security Council and indeed to the United Nations itself, a desire that finally came through after the U.S.-China rapprochement scripted by Zhou Enlai and Richard Nixon. Since that time in the 1970s, China has evolved as a major presence in Washington and today enjoys enormous influence -- mostly through the corporate sector -- within the Beltway, the traditional repository of power within the U.S. governance system, now facing a challenge from Trump.
The U.S. president has for the first time since the 1970s made China a focus of hostile action, both on the military as well as the business front. Naval patrols have multiplied in the South China Sea, while defense relationships with India and Vietnam have been established. Most worrisome for Beijing, there is a growing confluence of military to military between the United States and the Republic of China, otherwise known as Taiwan. It is not accidental that the new U.S. mission in Taipei is much bigger than several of the embassies maintained across the globe by the State Department. In the field of business, for the first time since relations between China and the United States were re-established in force 43 years ago, a Trade War has been launched by Trump against Chinese manufacturers.
This step is proving to be immensely unpopular within business groups in the United States, several of whom look to China for markets and profit, the latter mainly through import of Chinese wares that are much cheaper than those of the nearest competitor. The fear is that Beijing will turn to Europe and to other parts of Asia for the purchase of items that until Trump's trade war were mostly sourced from the United States -- items ranging from soybeans to aircraft
President Xi Jinping has put in place a finely calibrated strategy to persuade the Trump administration to call off economic hostilities against Chinese businesses. Imports of items produced in farm locations crucial to Republican Party control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have been stopped. As a consequence, prices have dropped and farmers (most of who vote Republican) are angry just months before midterm elections to the U.S. Congress.
At the same time, the thousands of influential individuals who are in favor of good relations with Beijing have been exerting themselves lobbying against the president and his key advisers, many of whom believe that Washington can win a trade war with China if it holds its nerve for long enough. Peter Navarro and John Bolton in particular are of the view that Trump can replicate in the case of the Chinese Communist Party what Ronald Reagan did in the case of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was to force that organization to respond to U.S. moves in a way that accelerated an implosion in the Soviet economy.
However, the Washington Beltway is opposed to such moves, as it believes that the CCP is far more cohesive than the CPSU ever was, both ideologically and organizationally. Also that Xi is a much more formidable rival than the post-Stalin leaders of the Soviet Union ever were, especially during the years of Leonid Brezhnev, a mediocrity who ensured only others like him reached the top in the CPSU and hence the Soviet government.
The Beltway has doubled down in its efforts at weakening Trump into irrelevance if it cannot get him thrown out of office altogether, and the opportunity presented itself as a consequence of the meeting in Helsinki between Trump and Putin. In fact, whether it be on oil prices (which would moderate rather than boil) or on the security of Israel or stability in the Middle East, the Trump-Putin meeting and evident chemistry can only be helpful. However, the Beltway has spun the meeting as a "treasonous giveaway" to Moscow, without specifying what exactly was "given away." Panicked Republicans joined the Democrats in bad-mouthing Trump, weakening his ability to force the pace of change in Washington. The trade war with China was a bridge too far for Trump to cross, and the Beltway was waiting for an excuse to fire back at the president, a chance that presented itself because of the Helsinki summit as seen through the eyes of the Atlanticist lobby (for whom it is Moscow and not Beijing that poses the greatest threat to U.S. primacy).
The charge that Trump is a dupe of Putin is ridiculous. Were he so, rather than be overtly friendly to the Russian spymaster turned world leader, the U.S. president would have put on an act, so as to give the impression of hostility to both Putin, as well as to Russia. This would have been done to camouflage any links with a country that France, the U.K. and Germany desperately wish to see continued as the "no. 1 threat" to the United States, even at a time when the Russian economy has shrunk to the level of a Chinese province. The supremacy of Atlanticist (rather than Indo-Pacific) policies in Washington cannot continue unless Moscow is the primary foe.
The focus of the Trump administration on seeking to win over allies of Beijing, such as Moscow and Pyongyang, were distasteful to the Europe-centered political and media establishment in the United States, who have jointly made little secret of their desire to force the resignation or removal of Trump from the exalted office he was elected to. The skillfully created hubbub around the meeting with Putin is designed to so weaken Trump that he will be president in name only for the remainder of his term, given that even Mueller seems to be finding it difficult to concoct a case that Trump and Putin worked in tandem to rig the 2016 presidential contest. The expectation is that Trump will no longer have the horsepower to continue such "disruptive" actions as a trade war with China and will pull back from such a course, returning the U.S. establishment to a policy course first set in the stone of governance during 1945-47 but which has ceased to be relevant since the close of the 1990s.
The attack on Trump that is being witnessed over the Helsinki meeting is fueled by an urgency to ensure a rollback of the trade war with China, a commercial contest which could impact the balance sheets of several companies in the United States and cost Republicans the U.S. House and Senate as a consequence of the skillful retaliatory moves made by the Chinese side. Should the Washington Beltway succeed in closing the gate to reconciliation with Moscow, that capital will have no other option but to get ever closer to Beijing. A Chinese Century may yet come, not as a consequence of Trump, but despite him.
Madhav Das Nalapat is a professor and the director of the Department of Geopolitics & International Relations at Manipal University, UNESCO peace chair and the editorial director of The Sunday Guardian-India and NewsX channel.