Legendary American writer, reporter, and political columnist, Walter Lippmann observed, “…a regime, an established order, is rarely overthrown by a revolutionary movement; usually a regime collapses of its own weakness and corruption and then a revolutionary movement enters among the ruins and takes over the powers that have become vacant.” (Clinton Rossiter and James Lare [eds.], The Essential Lippmann, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982, p.503). Lippmann wrote those words on June 5, 1958. Now, 60 years later, they resonate with renewed vigor.
Looking back to July 16, 2018, historians may well come to refer to President Trump’s performance as the “Great Tragedy in Helsinki” or the “Catastrophe in Helsinki.” No post-World War II President—not President Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama—had shown the world such a demonstration of debilitating weakness at a bilateral Great Power meeting.
The day began with an ominous signal of the American weakness to come. Hours ahead of his meeting, President Trump tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
Nothing was mentioned of Russia’s interference in the 2016 American election. No words were devoted to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, much less its illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Nothing was said of Russia’s role in Syria’s bloody sectarian conflict, much less its deepening relationship with Iran. No mention was made of Russia’s growing human rights abuses. Trump only blamed the United States.
President Trump proceeded to hold a two-hour one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is uncertain what was decided during those discussions, but Trump’s performance during the Singapore Summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un suggests a high likelihood that Trump reached understandings beneficial to Russia and possibly even granted the Russian leader one or more concessions that remain unknown to the public.
Some hints exist. Newsweek reported that following the one-on-one discussion between the two heads of state, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the talks had been “better than super.” Why? Further, during the joint Trump-Putin news conference (CNBC) afterward, Putin’s comments hinted at a possible relaxation of economic sanctions. Putin told the gathered reporters:
We agreed, me and president Trump, agreed to create high level working group that [will] bring together captains of Russian and American business. After all, entrepreneurs and businessmen know better how to articulate this successful business cooperation.
Such cooperation would get nowhere under the current economic sanctions regime. However, it could offer possibilities were the sanctions relaxed or withdrawn altogether.
President Trump also spoke in terms of a breakthrough. He stated:
Even during tensions of the Cold War, when the world looked much different than it does today, the United States and Russia were able to maintain a strong dialogue.
But our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago.
What changed? As Russia views the world in zero-sum terms, what did the United States grant Russia to bring about that ‘change?’
But that was not all. At the news conference, Trump lobbed additional damaging fire at the United States. When asked about his early morning tweet, President Trump explained:
I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago — long time, frankly, before I got to office, and I think we’re all to blame…
But I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it kept us apart; it kept us separated.
When questioned about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump replied:
With that being said, all I can do is ask the question, my people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be…
But I have — I have confidence in both parties.
In sum, Trump argued that the United States bears significant responsibility for the current bad state of relations with Russia. He added that he has confidence both in the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment and Russia’s narrative, even as both are irreconcilable. Trump had not defended the U.S. position. He failed to hold Russia accountable for its conduct that had produced the rapid deterioration in bilateral relations between Russia and the United States.
Such weakness was unnecessary and inexplicable. Russia today lacks the military might and geopolitical influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yet, it was President Trump, not his predecessors, who took the incredibly meek course in a bilateral meeting between the leaders of the two countries.
30 years ago, President Reagan provided decisive leadership in a similar setting. At his first one-on-one meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1988 Moscow Summit, President Ronald Reagan forcefully raised human rights and religious freedom issues despite differences among the two parties. The transcript of their discussion (The National Security Archive) revealed:
The President said he wished to digress for a minute and hand Gorbachev a list, as he had done on previous occasions. The United States was a country to which people came from all over the world, and many of them maintained an interest in the countries they had come from. All the cases on the list had been brought to his personal attention, by relatives and friends, and he wanted to mention two specifically…
The President asked Gorbachev what if he ruled that religious freedom was part of the people’s rights, that people of any religion—whether Islam with its mosque, the Jewish faith, Protestants or the Ukrainian church—could go to the church of their choice.
The President said that in the United States, under our Constitution, there was complete separation of church and state from each other. People had endured a long sea voyage to a primitive land to worship as they pleased. So what the President had suggested could go a long way to solving the Soviet emigration problem. Potential emigrants often wanted to go because of their limited ability to worship the God they believed in.
President Trump most clearly is no Ronald Reagan. Trump’s raising such basic issues with his Russian counterpart is all but unthinkable. Yet, even considering diminished expectations, Trump’s latest performance on the world stage was a tragedy of historic weakness. The aftershocks of that diplomatic disaster will likely reverberate across geopolitics for some time to come.
In the wake of a growing string of bad performances—the G-7 Summit, the Singapore Summit, the NATO Summit, and now the Helsinki Summit—there is little question that President Trump has damaged the American national interest and disheartened the nation’s allies. The only real issue concerns the magnitude of that mounting damage. As a consequence, the liberal world order that the United States had done so much to build in the years following the end of World War II is now one step closer to collapsing from the weight of the Trump Administration’s repeated manifestations of weakness.