Diplomatic Enclave: Upset in Washington
The much-awaited Helsinki meeting outraged American legislators and commentators at Trump’s soft handling of Putin

US President Donald Trump’s European tour stirred up the allies, rubbed a couple of leaders, began a dialogue with Moscow and caused a firestorm back home in Washington. The Presidential itinerary included a Nato meeting in Brussels, followed by a visit to London and a summit in Helsinki with Russia President Vladimir Putin.

Trump had already rattled European leaders before he started on his European trip last week. A divisive G7 meeting in Canada had ended with Trump rejecting a joint communiqué and calling his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau names and accusing the other countries of robbing the US. He also backed Russia’s return to the G7 from where it had been suspended after Moscow annexed Crimea.

Before starting his tour, he had quipped that his meeting with the Russian President “may be easiest” of his meetings. The Nato summit was a tense meeting with Trump charging Germany of being captive to Russia over the plans to build a new pipeline to transport Russian gas to Central and Western Europe through the Baltic Sea. He described the European Union as one of his greatest trade “foes”. He later criticised UK Prime Minister Teresa May’s Brexit policy in an interview to a British tabloid and suggested to May that the UK sue the European Union. But the visit passed off in a more peaceable manner than expected.

It was the meeting in Helsinki that caused the greatest upset in Washington. Helsinki has hosted several significant international summits, especially between American and Soviet leaders during the cold war. Finland has taken pride in its historic role as mediator, in hosting Leonid Brezhnev and Gerald Ford in 1975, Mikhail Gorbachev and George HW Bush in 1990 and Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton in 1997. Some in Helsinki had even hoped that it would be the venue for the Trump-Kim Jong-un meeting as well.

The much awaited Helsinki meeting between Trump and Putin outraged American legislators and commentators at Trump’s soft handling of Putin. Especially after the Robert Mueller investigation had charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers of hacking Democratic party computers during the 2016 presidential elections to help Trump’s campaign. The question of Russia trying to manipulate the presidential election came up in the talks when Putin denied any Russian interference in the elections though he favoured Trump’s victory because of his policies.

Both American and Russian sides had tried to tamp down expectations before the summit though Trump had said that the world “wanted us to get along”. US-Russia relations were at their lowest since the cold war period but the Mueller indictment had raised emotions in Washington taking the issue to the top of the popular agenda. Both Washington and Moscow had closed down a consulate each and withdrawn their diplomats in the recent months. While Putin called the talks “very successful and useful” and Trump described the meeting as a “really good start for everyone.”

Trump sees a trade rival as a bigger challenge than a traditional foe. It stems from his stance of ‘America First’ and his belief that American friends and allies were exploiting the US through running up huge trade deficits and not contributing enough for the combined security under Nato. Clearly, he would like to deal with the European states individually and not with the European Union with its large market. He criticised German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Teresa May. In London, he indicated that he was no longer interested in a trade deal with the UK while he offered to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with French President Emmanuel Macron. Will Trump change the old order and institutions or are these rhetorical onslaughts aimed at a bargaining advantage?

The uncertainty in Trump’s policies could have an impact on India that needs to be monitored and assessed. Trump’s changeable policies means that New Delhi will need to work on strengthening relations with other powers. It will also need to nurture its ties with Russia and Iran despite American pressure to isolate the two countries.

Washington has indicated that it is willing to talk with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Washington’s overtures towards the Taliban will bring Pakistan into the picture because of Islamabad’s influence on Taliban leaders. Despite Trump’s unflattering remarks about Pakistan, Islamabad will gain importance in American scheme of things, which will change the dynamics in the region.

There are reports that Trump has been invited to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in January 2019. But recent events have shown that Trump visits are not simple diplomatic triumphs for the two countries. India has a trade deficit with the US, and the US President has mentioned it on a couple of occasions. Trump’s comments may seem casual remarks initially, but he has taken them up more seriously at a later date.

Shubha Singh