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Blessed the Peacemakers: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

Blessed the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God…

Matthew 5:9

 

by Gilbert Doctorow

 

 

Though I have been practicing the art of political science these past ten years as essayist and journalist, my professional training as an historian comes to the fore occasionally as I ponder chains of causality and in particular, the fine interrelationship of deep-lying social-economic-geopolitical currents that carry us along and the determining forces of powerful individuals on the surface of the ocean of time.

Events of the past several weeks if not months going back to 1 March put these issues into high relief. By largely unforeseeable and counter-intuitive developments, the world is a much safer place than it was before 1 March 2018, and none of this is thanks to the efforts of me, my colleagues in the alternative news or of you, the reader. To our shame, we, the People have been silent witnesses of the daily news, often left scratching our heads at the way history is lurching forward before our eyes.

I involuntarily think back to the standards of thirty or forty years ago, when less threatening demarches and counter-demarches of the leading actors in the Cold War than those of today brought tens of thousands of demonstrators out onto the streets in Europe and in North America. I have in mind the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate range missiles and the counter-deployment of US nuclear armed cruise missiles in Germany. Civil society then protested loudly at the seeming march towards the abyss of mutual annihilation by sleep-walking heads of state. By contrast, the near catastrophic weekend of 14 April 2018 when Donald Trump sent 103 cruise missiles crashing into Syrian targets amidst dire Russian warnings against crossing their red lines in the country came and went with civil society on both sides of the Atlantic at the edge of their seats, but still sitting in comfortable armchairs, not out and about venting its opposition to approaching Armageddon.

So much for “progressive humanity,” not to mention specifically women or minorities whom our present-day historians like to think are shaping the course of destiny while they play down the role of “great men.”  Indeed, we are being led precisely by our heads of state and, to name names, by two men of destiny, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  In this essay I argue that whether by volition or by circumstance, they have both turned out to be the peacemakers we need to survive the present bumpy road of transitioning the world order from the failed US global hegemony or unipolar configuration to the coming but still not arrived multipolar configuration. In time present, we are neither here nor there but in a special, if ephemeral bipolar world of US-Russian confrontation that has turned quite ugly and dangerous.

 

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Given the latest exchange of barbs between Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, their summit planned for Singapore in early June may never take place. However that may be, the very thought of its happening, explained by some in the West as resulting from the tough sanctions regime, still tougher talk of Donald Trump from late autumn into the early spring of this year appeared to justify nominating the American President for a Nobel Peace Prize. To be sure, this hypothetical nomination has more justice to it than the actual award of a Nobel to Barack Obama in 2009 for his not being George W. Bush. In both cases, the award was/would be prescriptive rather than actually earned.

At the same time, the notion of Trump as peacemaker can be traced back to his speeches during the 2016 electoral campaign when he repeatedly said that he would seek normal relations with Russia while berating those who insisted on Cold War rhetoric. That was politically courageous in the context of overheated Russophobia within the US political establishment representing both parties. Since it added nothing to the candidate’s popularity while presenting a red flag to his critics, the policy had all appearances of deep conviction in pursuit of peace. It was on the basis of this issue alone that I and several acquaintances cast our vote for candidate Trump.

Of course, once in office Trump’s policy on Russia took a markedly different turn, and in recent months he has boasted that his administration is much tougher on Russia than Barack Obama had been.  The generally accepted explanation for this has been the mad pursuit of a “Russian connection,” of “complicity” between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin that allegedly threw the election his way.  This is the line of attack on Trump led by the Clinton faction of the Democratic Party, and it finds support from some Republicans as well. Their common objective is to turn Trump out of office by impeachment. The consequence, it is believed, was that Trump has been forced to abandon his pursuit of accommodation with the Kremlin and to align himself with those who describe Russia as the greatest threat to American security.

However, this explanation may be too facile and misses an important strategic consideration that probably underpinned Trump’s pro-Russian stance during the campaign: namely, that at the time Henry Kissinger was de facto one of his key policy advisers, and Henry clearly urged a re-set with the Kremlin in order to undo the forming Russia-China axis facilitated by Obama’s misguided policies of simultaneous containment of America’s two global rivals that spelled the undoing of his own lifetime achievement from the time of Nixon’s détente. A rapprochement with Russia, Henry advised, would make it possible for the US to deal firmly and decisively with the perceived greater strategic threat to American worldwide hegemony that China represented

Very early in the new administration, Vladimir Putin made it clear that no “come hither” look from Washington could prompt a strategic re-alignment against China. This was a scenario imaginable only to someone lacking a firm grasp of Putin’s thinking and behavior, of his loyalty to friends and disdain for treachery. But then again, Henry Kissinger was never very interested in Russia, never studied the country with any seriousness and enjoyed an undeserved reputation as expert in this domain.

Accordingly, with no benefits to realize by pursuing accommodation with Russia and a lot of political grief to pay domestically for doing so, Donald Trump changed his stripes on Russia in spring 2017 and went with the flow, went even beyond Obama in his truculent punishment of the Kremlin for its refusal to submit and follow the dictates of Uncle Sam.

Why then do I categorize Trump as a peacemaker? That comes from his perverse and ignorant destruction of the American global hegemony by his dispensing with Soft Power, with “shared values” and relying instead entirely on force, on open blackmail to “negotiate deals” with America’s allies in Europe and Asia. This comes directly from the President’s own personality, his DNA, his experience in dealing with past business partners from “a position of strength” rather than as a seeker of compromises and “win-win” solutions.

Trump’s vulgar familiarity, his open treachery, his public humiliation of his interlocutors complement his reversal of long-standing shared policy decisions on the Iran nuclear deal, on Climate Change, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, on  the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and on NAFTA..

The establishment understood correctly that Trump spelled disaster for the edifice of a rules-driven world order they had cultivated so meticulously for the past many decades which paid handsome financial dividends to America’s ruling classes, who have been eating the world’s lunch. But it was and remains inconvenient to explain precisely what was wrong.  And so we read balderdash written by such iconic commentators as Roger Cohen whose latest feuilleton in The New York Times speaks of a “moral rot that threatens America” emanating from the Oval Office.

The prevailing thinking among political analysts in alternative media – be it The Duran, Consortium News or Russia Today’s Peter Lavelle on Cross Talk – is that this obnoxious US president will have his way and that the US grip on the world will continue despite his excesses. They tell us Europe will “cave in” to Trump on Iran and ultimately impose the sanctions that Washington demands. It is argued that the European leaders may talk tough now, but that the business reality is such that flaunting Washington comes at too high a price given the discrepancy in volumes of trade with the USA as opposed to Iran. 

However, these analysts overlook not only the possible effects of Trump’s altogether indecent humiliation of friendly leaders but also the issue of existential national security, which everywhere and at all times outweighs commercial advantage in determining interstate relations. The simple fact is that Europe abhors the notion of a nuclear Iran which the existing convention prevents effectively, or, more generally, of a nuclear-armed Middle East at its doorstep. Europe also firmly opposes a wider conflagration in that area such as Trump’s revocation of the nuclear pact with Iran heralds. These are concerns which make a “cave-in” impossible, whatever the measure of personal courage of European leaders.

Trump utterly lacks discernment and is being egged on to commit unpardonable blunders in foreign policy by the “mad dog” civilian advisers like John Bolton whom he appointed to look and sound tough. His pursuit of primitive mercantilist policies such as the promotion of overpriced US liquefied gas to Europe to replace Russian pipeline gas through Nord Stream II, which he is pressing Merkel to scuttle, make a mockery of shared Atlanticist interests and values, and expose to ridicule at home any European leaders who might be tempted to stand by his side.

One cannot overestimate the significance of the harshly condemnatory statements addressed to Trump and the USA this past week by both European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker and by European Council President Donald Tusk. Tusk said trenchantly about Trump “with friends like this who needs enemies.” Juncker called for activation of a 1990s EU “blocking law” to protect European business from the effects of secondary US sanctions for continuing to do business with Iran. The given mechanism was launched the next day, this past Friday.

It must be recalled that both of these leaders were installed by Angela Merkel. Their firmness in repudiating Washington’s bullying and wrongheaded position on Iran represents not merely their personal views but the views coming from Berlin, which for the last decade at least is the guiding force in EU policy, both foreign and domestic. Moreover, by an irony of fate, the harshest denunciation of the United States is coming precisely from the Pole Tusk, former head of the ruling party in Warsaw. It has to be recalled that Tusk’s Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, acknowledged his country had been giving Uncle Sam “a blow job.”  For these reasons, I think the US game is up thanks to the good work of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The problem of non-compliance with US sanctions against Iran is multi-dimensional and it is clearly too early to say how this will play out.  Experts agree that in any case the financial infrastructure for trading with Iran, SWIFT, will this time, unlike the last US-led sanctions on Iran imposed in 2012, remain in place. The “blocking law” offers some financial compensation to European companies facing penalties in the United States, though Chancellor Merkel has said this is unlikely to be sufficient. 

A major question is what the European companies will actually do.  First indications are not encouraging, with Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company and French oil giant Total indicating they are closing operations with Iran, the former, or will do so if they are not given explicit exemptions by Washington, the latter. But these are just straws in the wind. The European blocking law is likely to give more comfort to small and medium sized European companies than to the very largest companies with heavy US involvement.  So only time will tell whether ongoing trade and investment with Iran will be sufficient for Teheran to continue to honor the nuclear deal. And then there is the question of how much assistance will actually be rendered by the two countries standing most resolutely by the side of Iran: Russia and China.

The possible failure of the US sanctions on Iran because of noncompliance would not stand by itself. It comes in the context of multiple disputes between the US and its allies in which trade and sanctions figure heavily.

America’s policies of global economic gendarme and issuer of unilateral sanctions on its competitors, not to mention adversaries is uniting opposition to sanctions regimes as a tool of foreign policy overall. The opening skirmishes of a US-initiated trade war with Europe over steel and aluminum has focused minds.

Meanwhile, it is notable that a  new government about to be installed in Italy has made the lifting of US-led sanctions on Russia one of the several key policies of their coalition. And while it is easy to say that Europe has heard this before, from Austrians, from Czechs, from Slovaks, from Greeks who did not and do not share the enthusiasm of Brussels in applying sanctions to Russia, they were all two-bit countries who lacked the demographic heft and the economic weight to go up against the 28 and enter a veto. Italy has that scale and as a founding member of the EU, its intended veto of the sanctions may well be the game changer so many of us have waited for.  But this is ignored or discounted by Donald Trump’s administration which has announced plans to implement still tougher sanctions on Russia over the vaguely termed “malign influence” they say Russia exerts on Europe.

 By overplaying his hand, Donald Trump is hastening the collapse of US global hegemony and of the triumphalism that has guided bellicose behavior, risking war by intent or miscalculation. In this way, Trump has been unwittingly fostering global peace.

 

 

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If Trump is a peacemaker by his promotion of policies destructive of US power, Vladimir Putin is a peacemaker by conscious choice. This is not to say that Putin is being dovish.  Quite the contrary is true. Putin is the living embodiment of the principle of ensuring peace by preparing for war.

In his recent debate with Ambassador Michael McFaul at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, Professor Stephen Cohen noted that Vladimir Putin has a demonstrable long record as “reactive” to American and other Western encroachments on Russia’s national interests and is in no way the aggressor, as our governments and media insist. Those of us with open minds and clear vision have long noted Putin’s characteristic restraint, refusal to respond to provocations in haste or in an intemperate manner.

This behavior pattern goes straight back to his early days in power, when Russia was shocked to receive as reward for its generous support to the United States following 9/11 back of the hand treatment from Washington. From the Russian perspective, the US decision to abrogate the ABM Treaty in 2002, removed one of the key features of global security dating back to the early 1970s. It was plain to see that the US objective now was to achieve strategic superiority over Russia in the one area that justified its claims to a seat on the governing board of international affairs, its nuclear triad. With the planned construction of anti-missile bases in Europe that could also serve as launchers of attack missiles, the United States would obtain a first strike capability.

At the time, Putin strenuously objected to this US program, which he said would require Russia to make counter moves to ensure its security.  However, Russian warnings went unheeded and in 2004 Putin informed Washington that his country would now proceed on its own to develop asymmetrical systems of defense against the US anti-ballistic missile infrastructure developing at its perimeter.  This message only evoked derisive commentary among NATO officials behind closed doors. After all, they reasoned, the much diminished technical and financial levels of the Russian Federation rendered the country’s come-back as a military equal improbable.

Nonetheless, Putin persisted in his plans and on 1 March 2018, in his annual Address to the joint session of the Russian parliament which also served as the key speech of his electoral campaign, Vladimir Putin revealed publicly what Russia has done in the past 14 years to restore strategic nuclear parity with the United States for the present and for the foreseeable future. He presented the functional characteristics of some eight new and technologically unrivaled weapons systems including hypersonic cruise missiles and drones operating at the ocean depths. These systems all have in common virtually unstoppable delivery of nuclear payloads which, in the cutting analysis of Russian commentators in the following days, turn the entire US anti-missile infrastructure which cost hundreds of billions of dollars, into a modern-day Maginot Line. That is to say the Russians had used some of the best minds on the planet, scientists who did not go overseas in pursuit of comfortable jobs in Silicon Valley working on the latest i-Phone but instead worked with dedication and patriotism to ensure the country’s survival. They had effectively managed these technical teams in tight budgets measured in orders of magnitude less than comparable programs in the United States to produce game-changing defense systems that are already deployed (the Dagger) or will soon be put in serial production (Sarmat).

“You did not listen to us before. Now hear this.”  Those were the words of Putin after he presented the new systems. But instead of threats to “bury” the West, as Nikita Khrushchev once used, Vladimir Putin used his announcement to call upon the Americans and others to enter into new arms control negotiations.

Was anyone listening?  To judge by the mainstream American media, the frivolous discounting of Russian capabilities continued unabated after Putin’s speech of 1 March.  We were told that this was only an electoral stratagem to get additional votes, that no such systems exist, that Putin was bluffing.  However, American political leaders with an inside knowledge of defense realities, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (California-D), long-time chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were listening. She and three other Senators issued a public call to then Secretary of Defense Rex Tillerson to immediately reopen arms control talks with the Kremlin.  Then the President himself in his congratulatory message to Vladimir Putin on his successful re-election said that it was important to meet in the not too distant future to talk about arms control because the arms race was “getting out of hand.”

One may object that talk is cheap, and that these recognitions of new Russian might were largely kept from the American public. In this case, American actions speak louder than words. In the cruise missile attack on Syria on 14 April to which I alluded at the start of this essay, the United States scrupulously took measures to ensure no harm would be done to Russian military personnel in Syria, so that the military impact of the attack was essentially nill. In short, the Russian President’s speech ensured full attention was given in Washington to the threats of Chief of the Russian General Staff Gerasimov to shoot down ships and planes launching missiles at Syria if Russian red lines were crossed.

The last, and perhaps the only true realists in the US power establishment, the military command in the Pentagon clearly no longer disdain Russian capabilities and determination.

In a broader sense, it is also salutary and helpful to the maintenance of global peace that Vladimir Putin made it clear that Russia is ready to press the nuclear button, even if it spelled collective suicide, in case it came under attack from the United States.  This came out in the course of a special film on Putin that was released during the campaign. He explained to the interviewer that he did not want to live in a world in which the Russian Federation ceased to exist and would respond to attack accordingly.

This clarity compares favorably with the wishy-washy position of British military and civilian top leadership that came out in a BBC pseudo-documentary entitled “World War Three. Inside the War Room,” February 2016.

Equal military power, readiness to use it in the face of existential security threats, clarity of thinking and restraint: these are all the elements which combine to make Vladimir Putin a major contributor to global peace.

 

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It is a curious feature of our confusing and vexing times, that some of my peers remain hopeful that a Summit meeting of Putin and Trump might provide a breakthrough in relations that would end the global stand-off and usher in an era of peace.  They even go so far as to hope for a US-Russian strategic partnership.

From the foregoing, it should be obvious that any possible rapprochement between the United States and the Russian Federation is a project for the distant future and cannot come earlier than a fundamental change in thinking of the US establishment from global hegemony to positioning the US as just one of several peers at the table working on the basis of consensus, not Diktat. That day will not come soon.

In the meantime, arm’s length relations between the two heads of state will be entirely sufficient and justified. All that is needed is mutual respect, and as Trump’s recent meetings with foreign leaders demonstrates, respect for others is not part of his mindset. It will be far better if any negotiations with Russia are held at the working level to ensure open lines of communication and clear understanding of the other side’s red lines.

This, too, will pass. Perhaps the outcome of the 2020 US elections will open new perspectives.

    

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg

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