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  • The Munich Security Conference, 2018: Mutually Assured Contempt

    The Munich Security Conference, 2018:  Mutually Assured Contempt

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

    The annual Munich Security Conference is to geopolitics what Davos is to global economics: a forum for public discussion of challenges and trends, as well as a venue for side meetings off the official schedule by Very Important People that are at times even more intriguing than the formal events. By the latter I have in mind, for example, the tête-à-tête behind closed doors between former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the Russian ambassador to Germany that set tongues wagging back in Kiev and Moscow, even if it was passed up in the Euronews coverage.

    The very biggest names in global politics make their appearances at Munich and occasionally catch the imagination of all with substantive as opposed to merely clever remarks.  No one familiar with the venue can forget Vladimir Putin’s speech there of February 2007. It set in motion the open challenge to US global mastery that has evolved into the deep cracks in the world order which were the main theme of Munich a year ago, and which presented themselves  again for consideration in the latest, 2018 edition.

    Last year the biggest name in Munich was Chinese President Xi, who did not disappoint and stole the show by his robust defense of free trade, global cooperation to combat climate change and other leading issues of the day from which Donald Trump’s America seemed to be retreating. This year there was no one leader who commanded the attention of the audience and media. What special meaning the gathering had could be found in the Report of the organizers, which highlights the issues and guided the discussion in the various sessions over three days.

    Parsing an 88-page text like the Report might be a step too far. But a word about its style is in order since that takes us directly to analysis of its content. 

    The Munich Security Conference takes place in Germany. Its website and promotional literature are bilingual, German-English.  However, the Report is in English, and in very special English at that. No British spelling or turns of speech here, unlike so many documents of think tanks generated on the Continent. No this is the American English of the U.S establishment in the self-satisfied and coy style of Foreign Affairs magazine. Where else would you find section headings entitled “Russia: Bearly Strong?” or “United States: Home Alone?”

    And while the texts in the Report allude to interviews in the press by former German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier, and a side column quotes from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s speech to the Conference last year, there is more than a sprinkling of references to leading personalities in America’s Council on Foreign Relations, starting with its president, Richard Haass. And what is surely the most remarkable quote in the Report (see below) comes from Council member and long-time book reviewer for Foreign Affairs, Princeton University professor G. John Ikenberry. 

    To cut to the quick, the American input to the agenda and posture of the Munich Security Conference is of decisive weight when you look at the recommended reading (“Food for Thought”) and special reports sections at the back. In the Acknowledgements section at the very end, we find the heavyweights RAND Corporation, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence listed together with the lightweight but very voluble Freedom House.

     

    This Establishment is Atlanticist, a promoter of the liberal institutional order that it helped to create over the past 60 plus years in the knowledge that the biggest financial and political beneficiary of an order based on rules written in Washington has been the United States.  To a man, they are anti-Trump.

    Indeed, the text of the Munich Report reeks of anti-Trump venom and a good dose of despair over the ongoing triumph of the anti-Christ who is now the U.S. President.

    The introductory chapter of the Report bears the ominous title: “Present at the Erosion: International Order on the Brink?” The most striking remark on its first page is by G. John Ikenberry: “the world’s most powerful state has begun to sabotage the order it created. A hostile revisionist power has indeed arrived on the scene, but it sits in the Oval Office, the beating heart of the free world.”

    Let us remember that over the course of his career Ikenberry has been a penetrating and at times courageous analyst. Back in 1992, he co-authored with Daniel Deudney a splendid article entitled “Who Won the Cold War” (Foreign Policy) explaining why it was a draw, ended by mutual agreement. He thereby went directly against the rising tide of Neoconservatism and American hubris built on falsification of modern history.

    American Establishment biases, willful ignorance of realities and fake news are given free rein in the page of the 2018 Report devoted to Russia.  Here we read about the Kremlin’s “disinformation campaign” during the French presidential election of 2017 and about the “efforts to influence the US presidential election in 2016” that have “paid dividends.”  Unproven allegations of meddling and illogical conclusions about dividends, considering the track record of the Trump administration in its first year in office:  the dispatch of lethal military equipment to Ukraine that even Obama hesitated to approve, the extension of sanctions and a number of other measures raising the tensions with Russia in the Baltics and in Syria.

    Here we find the stubborn refusal to accept the true scale and breadth of Russia’s might. We are reminded that the country’s GDP is the size of Spain, a proposition that is distorted and misleading depending as it does on exchange rates rather than purchasing power parity At last report, Spain was not supplying one-third of all the natural gas consumed in Europe; Russia was.  At last report, Spain did not have a military industrial complex that is second only to the United States; Russia has.

    Yet, the Munich Security Conference differs in an important way from the American establishment, which is today not very welcoming of “adversaries” or “competitors” who may conceptualize the world order in their own way. Whatever its home grounds philosophically, the Munich Security Conference does try to be inclusive and brings even troublemaker countries and personalities into the tent. Moreover, the Security Conference, like Davos, has substantial continuity in the attendees. You heard from the Iranian Foreign Minister last year, and you will hear from him again this year, and probably next year as well.  This does not smooth out all the rough edges in these encounters, but it keeps them somewhat in check.

    One of the “regulars,” and perhaps the most remarkable performer at the 2018 Munich Security Conference was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. I call him remarkable because of his ability to rise above his detractors in the hall through superior command of the facts, wit and daring. 

    At last year’s Munich Conference, a number of Lavrov’s pronouncements were met by derisive laughter from the Americans in the front rows, picked up by other Western diplomats and politicians.  Yet, Lavrov took it in stride, remarking acidly that he had also found some statements by representatives of other countries to be laughable but had shown greater restraint than members of his audience.

    Heckling also took place during Lavrov’s speech this year, though on a markedly lower scale. And once again, Lavrov took the upper hand, chided his detractors for their incivility and joked that it did not matter:  “after all, they say laughter helps us live longer.”

    Lavrov’s speech itself was a masterpiece of argumentation against the exclusion of Russia from the common European home, the descent of a divisive “we/they” thinking in Western Europe to justify the New Cold War. He specifically called out for condemnation the ongoing rewriting of history in the Baltic States, in Poland, in Ukraine that airbrushes Russia out of the victory over Hitlerite Germany, encourages destruction of monuments to Soviet liberators and makes heroes of home-grown fascist movements as in Ukraine.

    It bears mention that back home in Moscow, there are voices of strident nationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky who explain on national television day after day why it is time for Lavrov to go, because he is too soft, too easy going with the nation’s enemies in the West.

    However, the skill at debate, nerves of steel and icy reserve that Lavrov displayed in Munich show yet again that he is the right man in the right place to defend Putin’s Russia.

    The problem that comes out of the Report and the body language we saw in the conference proceedings is the following: whether the opposing sides of East and West were more or less restrained in their gestures and words, there lies on each side a poisonous contempt for the other that could lead to miscalculations and rash actions in the event of some incident, some mishap between our respective armed forces in any of the theaters where they are now operating in close proximity in support of opposing sides.

    © 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

  • Putin – Trump meeting in Hamburg: what paradigm for development of US-Russian relations should we look for?

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D,

     

    The much-anticipated first face-to-face meeting of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin finally took place on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg on July 7. The attention of the world and even of the other participants of Summit was so riveted to the Trump-Putin meeting, and the Summit schedule was so interrupted by that meeting, that clever tongues are speaking of the G-20 having taken place at the sidelines of the Trump-Putin talks.

    The two big news items to emerge in U.S. media concerned a) the length of the meeting and b) Trump’s having raised the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, thus addressing the demands for confronting the Kremlin on the issue that came out of the hysterical “Russiagate” campaign of Trump’s detractors and political enemies.

    Indeed, the meeting went on for two hours and fifteen minutes, as opposed to the 25 minutes advised in advance by the White House. There were a total of six participants:  the two presidents, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his counterpart Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the interpreters.This is important, because Trump dispensed with the large delegation of "advisers" and Russophobes, like Fiona Hill, whom he was urged to take along to the meeting to keep him on the straight and narrow.

    As for Russian hacking and other alleged interference in the U.S. elections, we are told that the subject took up 40 minutes, nearly a third of the meeting time. The New York Times  confides that the discussion was tense and heated.   In answer to journalists’ questions following the meeting, Sergei Lavrov and then later Vladimir Putin himself expressed confidence that the Russian’s vehement denials of any involvement were persuasive and were accepted. So far, the Trump camp has been quiet on the persuasiveness.

    Regrettably, this very tightly focused attention of U.S. media has left unreported what was actually achieved during the meeting.  To be sure, that was not much of substance, because substance requires detailed advance preparation by teams from both sides, something which could not and did not occur due to the intense pressure of Trump’s political opponents and even of several of his own advisers, who wanted no meeting at all or a confrontational meeting as opposed to constructive meeting if any. 

    That being said, there was one concrete piece of business which Lavrov mentioned in his press briefing immediately afterwards: the creation of a joint U.S.-Russian center for deconfliction in Jordan, where the U.S. military coordination of the Syrian theater is located, to look after the implementation of a local pacification and return to civilian life in the southwest region of Syria. Moreover, the supervision on the ground of this deconfliction will be performed by Russian military police.  That all appears to be a very positive development, adding to the 6 deconfliction areas in Syria that were agreed in Astana at meetings of all warring parties and are under the guaranty of Turkey, Iran and Russia.

     It would be still better if there had been some progress on the more dangerous zone of eastern and southeastern Syria along the Euphrates, where U.S. backed forces of the Free Syrian Army have clashed with Assad’s forces and where the U.S. shot down a Syrian bomber a couple of weeks ago, causing the Russians to cut military hot lines and to threaten to target all U.S. and Allied planes flying West of the Euphrates.

    We also are informed that the United States will now be taking an active role in pressing for the implementation of the Minsk Accords for the sake of a properly observed cease-fire and a political solution. A point man for relations with Ukraine has been named.  In practice, this will likely mean applying pressure on Kiev to live up to its commitments – on voting in the Donbass, on decentralization….

    There was also an agreement to set up a joint body to deal with cyber security so as to ensure there will be no possible attacks on electoral processes in either country.  The Russians, in particular, seek such cooperation in the knowledge that cyber attacks are considered a causus belli by the Americans.

    More generally, what seems to have been achieved at the Putin-Trump meeting was agreement on procedures to begin a normalization of bilateral relations, including the early appointment of new ambassadors in both capitals.  No agreements on anything specific as yet, but the identification of outstanding issues and the start of assignment of responsibility on both sides to enter into detailed discussion to find solutions.   If followed up, that could turn out to be a turning point in relations.

    Before the meeting took place, journalists and pundits were looking for scenarios from the past which might characterize the emerging relationship of the two presidents.  Optimists, in particular, spoke of the enormously important example set by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, which led to very significant agreements on arms limitation and to the resolution of the underlying cause of the Cold War: Europe’s division into Russian and Allied spheres of control. Donald Trump’s repeated indications on the campaign trail that he believed Putin was someone with whom he could do business was redolent of Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s views of Gorbachev.

    But I think that this conceptualization of what may lie ahead is deceptive and a cul de sac.   Today there is no Soviet Union, no Russian empire in Europe and nothing of the kind to resolve. Moreover, with all of the negative associations for today’s Kremlin coming from the naïve and unjustified trust of Gorbachev in the good intentions and fair play of his interlocutors, references to that political duo is a nonstarter for the Russian side. 

     

     

    Instead, I see the frame of reference for what lies ahead in the Nixon-Brezhnev detente.  One of the great implementers of that détente was Henry Kissinger, whose Realpolitik underlies Trump’s America First thinking.  And Kissinger himself has been very visible in the Trump foreign policy circle.  He was with Trump when he received Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office a couple of months ago.  He was Trump’s messenger to Putin a week ago when he arrived in Moscow and was taken to a tête-à-tête with the Russian President that Russian state television considered newsworthy.  

     

    Nixon-era détente was all about peaceful coexistence between two world super-powers pursuing their own national interest, not about cozy friendship.

     

    We do not have today an ideological divide driving the competition of these two powers, but we do have heightened and currently malicious or malignant competitiveness that can run amok. The objective is to agree on national interests of the sides, a polite way of saying the unspeakable in American politics, "spheres of influence."  At the highest level of abstraction, we are talking about an agreement on world governance.

     

    In the heyday of detente, and even as late as 1978 or so, Brezhnev offered Nixon a condominium:  if we and you agree, said Leonid Il’ich, no one else in the world will dare raise a finger.    The Americans did not buy it.  Nixon could not have accepted that even if he wished to because Congress would never agree.   Putin is not offering such a condominium, but instead is offering mutual responsibility for governance through the UN and other fora like the G20.  Maybe, just maybe Trump will go for it.

     

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     In trying to understand how the Russians have assessed the Putin-Trump meeting, as usual I have found the country's highest level political talk show, Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, to be an invaluable aid.

    Opinion is divided between politicians and think tank intellectuals who are openly optimistic and those who are guardedly optimistic.

    The openly optimistic believe that Trump and Putin got off to a good start, with good "personal chemistry" which promises an improvement of bilateral relations. And in general they believe that Russia did well from the encounter, with the eyes of the world directed respectfully at their President. The world had returned to the good old days when everyone looked to Washington and Moscow as the arbiters of global stresses.

    The guardedly optimistic believe that the meeting does not hold the promise of good relations, but marks the end of deterioration and so averts war, which otherwise was quite possibly on the horizon.  The meeting and its duration highlight the understanding in the United States that maintaining working relations and open dialogue with Russia is essential for world peace. But the sanctions will remain, and the major power blocs of the United States and Europe, Russia and China will vie for influence and keep their distance from one another for many years to come.

    It also bears mention that the Russians were bemused by the insistent implicit and sometimes explicit criticism of Trump from American journalists and other attendees of the Summit for being incompetent, something of a deranged fool.  No one in living memory had witnessed such contempt for the Commander in Chief from his own fellow citizens.  This fact curbed Russian expectations that anything promised by Trump could be realized.

     

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    Apart from the meeting of the Russian and American presidents and from the obvious isolation of the US delegation at the conclusion of the summit when the other 19 members joined in a common statement reaffirming their countries’ commitment to the Paris Climate Change treaty from which Trump has withdrawn the United States, the other main aspect of the G-20 in Hamburg that captured the headlines of U.S. and European press was the violence of the demonstrators who, as is now customary at such events, came to curse globalization and the free trade pacts that G-20 members have traditionally subscribed to.  More than 100 German police fell victim to the demonstrators actions.

    The very curious thing is that no one from the opponents of globalization took notice of an extraordinary fact:  that Donald Trump is the first American President ever to have taken a policy stand AGAINST globalization. If logic had any place in these political struggles, the demonstrators should have been lined up to shake Trump’s hand, wish him well in deconstructing the trade pacts, and asked for autographs. 

     

    But logic and politics often part company, and the demonstrators ‘did their thing’ without a nod of any kind to their American ally in the White House.

     

     

     

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

     

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    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.

  • The correlation between Trump’s cruise missile attack in Syria and the possible emergence of a new détente

    The correlation between the bombing of Syria and Trump’s friendly meeting with Lavrov in the Oval Office two days ago is linear. Hitting the Shayrat air base, under any pretext, real or manufactured, was precisely the kind of policy that Kissinger would support, and possibly authored to drive back the hyena-like press and political enemies who had formed a circle around Trump.

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