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Trump and Brexit Derangement Syndrome

British Prime Minister Theresa May visits Salisbury, the city where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent, March 15, 2018. (Toby Melville/Pool/Reuters)
A more plausible explanation for the poisoning of the Russian double agent and his daughter is that Putin sought to deflect attention from the Baltics.

I am not one of those Brexiteers who believe that Brexit and Trumpism are essentially the same phenomenon in two different countries. To be sure, they both draw on some of the same political trends, notably a distrust of elites and an upsurge of popular anger over evident failures of public policy such as illegal immigration. But opposition to Britain’s membership in the European Union has been the firm belief of a large and passionate number of voters, sometimes a plurality, in U.K. politics ever since Britain joined in 1973. Trumpism, on the other hand, is a very recent phenomenon (even if long germinating). Also, though Brexit may be proving hard to achieve, it’s a clear and well-defined idea: that Britain should leave the EU to regain its former status as a self-governing democracy. Trumpism, however, is a work in progress, which, as in the paintings of some modern artists, may not even exist as a distinct concept in the mind of the artist.

Despite these differences, however, both Trump and Brexit have inspired the same sort of derangement syndrome. And, as it happens, both such syndromes have been triggered by the same event in the past few days — namely, the crisis arising from the poisoning of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the picturesque English cathedral town of Salisbury. As soon as the broad facts were known and the suspicion formed — in part because Russian television gloated unbecomingly over it — that President Putin’s Russia was behind this attempted murder, two opinions began to be heard.

The first was that President Trump would remain silent on the matter and fail to offer any real support to Theresa May and the Brits. Very quickly this criticism lost its conditional tone, and it began to be asserted that Trump had actually failed to offer such support. Whole days had gone by and he had still failed to condemn Putin — and, of course, we all knew why that was, didn’t we? He was in Putin’s pocket and didn’t want to discommode his ally/co-conspirator/boss.

So what was the timetable?

Skripal and his daughter were found comatose and apparently dying on a park bench in Salisbury on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 7. On Monday, March 12, Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that according to British experts the Skripals had been poisoned by a nerve agent that Russia had developed. This meant, she said, either that the Russian state had launched a direct attack on Britain or that it had lost control of a potentially catastrophic poison. She demanded a reply from the Russian government by midnight of Tuesday, March 13. No satisfactory explanation was forthcoming, and on Wednesday, March 14, May declared that it was overwhelmingly likely that the Russian state had directly attacked Britain. She then announced a series of anti-Russian sanctions.

Two days before that, however, when May was giving her first statement to the Commons, leaving open the question of whether this had been a Russian attack or a loss of control over their stockpiles, Jon Sopel of the BBC asked in a tweet whether there would now be from Trump a “condemnation” of the attack, as it was a case of “So far silence from Britain’s closest ally.”

That was echoed in the London Times on the 13th  —  i.e., the day before May’s second and more conclusive statement — in a statement from former foreign secretary and Labour moderate David Miliband: “It is very significant and very worrying, frankly, that the White House has not felt able to point the finger at Russia in the last seven or eight days.”

In the same edition of the Times, Alex Massie in an op-ed dealt briskly with the awkward problem that Rex Tillerson had condemned the Russian actions in the clearest terms: “When Rex Tillerson, in one of his final acts as US secretary of state, condemned Russian aggression in Wiltshire it was obvious that he was barely speaking for his badly understaffed department, let alone for the US administration as a whole.” He concluded gloomily that “alliances are based on reliability and no one, least of all its friends, can rely on this American administration.” Anne Applebaum (of whom more later) in the Washington Post joined in this chorus. And Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, had an even more severe judgment on the Tillerson case.

Yes, Tillerson had been admirably “robust” in his criticism of Russia’s attack in Wiltshire, he wrote, but that outspokenness had led to serious consequences for him: “He lost his job.” Of course, we learned almost immediately that Tillerson had been fired three days before condemning Russia. But that alone would not necessarily have satisfied those suffering from Trump derangement syndrome. They might well have argued that his firing meant that he was now finally free to defy Trump and condemn Putin — if Trump had not himself condemned Russia in strong terms even as they were writing.

Asked by journalists on Tuesday the 13th (in the interval between May’s two statements), he told the cameras that he would be talking to Theresa May later in the day but that until then: “It seems to me they think like it’s Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact. If we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Trump says this in about three different ways in the course of 39 seconds. He was widely reported in the American media as having “hedged” his support, but in the video you can see that he’s saying exactly what May was saying at that time, with the sole qualification that he’s waiting to hear what she has to say to him personally. When they had the conversation later that day, Tuesday the 13th again, the White House put out a report expressing solidarity with the U.K. and stating that “President Trump said that the US was with the UK all the way.” That was followed on Wednesday and Thursday by two statements from the State Department condemning Russia, another from Ambassador Nikki Haley at the United Nations, and above all by a joint statement — from the U.S., the U.K., France, and Germany — that called the poisoning of the Skripals “the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It is an assault on U.K. sovereignty and any such use by a State party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all.” In the middle of all these condemnations both the U.S. and the U.K. announced additional sanctions on Russia.

Which brings me to Brexit — and to Brexit Derangement Syndrome. In a sort of non-musical counterpoint to the denunciations of Trump, many of the same critics were developing an argument that Brexit meant that Britain was now isolated, alone, and without allies in the face of this Russian assault.

In a sort of counterpoint to the denunciations of Trump, many critics were developing an argument that Brexit meant that Britain was now isolated.

There was a little cognitive dissonance in these jeremiads because their authors wanted to suggest both that EU states such France and Germany would no longer be reliable allies for Britain post-Brexit and that nonetheless they would be much more reliable allies than Trump’s America. The first of these melodies got a brief overture when a spokesman for President Macron described the called British response of anti-Russian sanctions “fantasy politics,” seeming to suggest that the French took the matter lightly. But he was quickly slapped down by Macron himself, who declared that he accepted the British view that the Russians were responsible for the poisoning, that it was “unacceptable,” that there had to be European and transatlantic unity in response, and that France would shortly announce measures in response.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in the Telegraph brilliantly explained this turnabout, giving a historical tour d’horizon of French attitudes, pointing out that, at least since de Gaulle, France has liked to be a reliable ally but a difficult one, so that its support would not be taken for granted. In general, however, the main theme concerning Brexit was that, in different ways, Britain had isolated itself from allies and therefore from its own security.

Thus Alex Massie’s o-ped in the Times, mentioned above, was entitled “Brexit Leaves Us Lonely in a Dangerous World,” and after some reflections on the terrible silence of Trump, it developed this theme:

At the very moment when the UK needs a reliable partner in Washington it encounters the first “America First” president since the Second World War. And it does so at the precise moment when it is cutting ties with its erstwhile continental partners. . . . Yes, we wish to maintain close working relationships and alliances with our European neighbours with whom we still have many common interests, but the unavoidable fact remains that a Britain leaving the EU is less well-placed to press the case for firm action against Russia than a Britain that was still a member would have been.

Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post pressed home the same argument in a column entitled “The nerve agent attack on British soil has exposed London’s isolation.” Indeed, she considers that the Russian attack may even have been prompted by Brexit: “More ominously, it may have been designed to expose Britain’s new isolation: Now that it is leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom no longer has a set of allies it can rely upon to help craft a response.”

And she added: “If the point was to expose British isolation, it has succeeded.”

Of course, that was early in the week. Two days later the French, the Germans, and the Yanks were all lined up with the Brits to denounce Russia and to declare solidarity with the U.K. in a joint statement. That was a major development, and it was followed by an announcement of additional U.S. sanctions. But in another somersault – this time the reverse of Macron’s – the new German foreign minister in Merkel’s shaky coalition diluted this commitment and said that the Salisbury crisis was a “bilateral” dispute between Britain and Russia, and not a matter for the alliance as a whole. That was certainly a retreat from the joint statement of a few days before and arguably a breach of the solidarity it had proclaimed. But it seemed to have less to do with Brexit than with the drift of the new German government, in which the Social Democrats have more influence over foreign policy, towards a friendlier relationship with Russia – a “difficult partner” but a necessary one, as the minister put it. And Berlin is indeed currently quarreling with its other partners in Central Europe, who are proving difficult in that they are resisting Russo-German plans to build a second Nordstream pipeline that would enable Moscow to service Germany with energy while cutting Central Europe out. On this matter, as it happens, the isolated Brits are supporting the Central Europeans.

And there was a more general problem with the commentaries lamenting the isolation of Brexit Britain. They left out an extremely important aspect of European solidarity, namely, NATO, which is the main (and for practical purposes, the sole) organization for the defense of Europe. Not only is Britain a member of NATO, but the country is its single most important European member. That is true not only because the U.K. makes a stronger military and financial contribution to NATO than does any other European power, but also for reasons of geography: Germany and France are between the U.K. and the only power threatening European security, Russia. They need Britain far more than Britain needs them in the security realm. That alone makes them reliable allies, if not necessarily active or eager ones. And contrary to Massie’s argument, that reality is not likely to change because the Brits want to set their own tax rates, regulations, and trading rules.

That leaves hanging Ms. Applebaum’s argument that the U.K.’s isolation born of Brexit prompted the attack. Given the allied support since given to Britain, that seems either a very severe Russian miscalculation or a mistaken analysis by the columnist. What, then, did prompt the attack (other than that Salisbury was where their target lived)? One clue lies in Applebaum’s list of possible responses that the Brits could make to the attack. As she rightly says, it’s hard to come up with sanctions that are both fast and effective. The longer-range sanctions on suspect Russian investment in London are doable, however, and I am more optimistic than she that something serious will now be done. New laws have recently been put in place to police hot and mafia money, and the latest Whitehall briefings in the Sunday newspapers suggest that they will shortly be activated against Putin cronies and oligarchs. We’ll see.

One immediate sanction Applebaum mentions in passing, though, is that Britain “could reinforce its troops on the Russian border, in the Baltic states.” That proposal leads to the thought that maybe the U.K.’s existing “leading role” (alongside that of the Dutch and the French) in NATO’s enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states was a possible motive for the Russian attack. For the Brits have been more willing than most NATO members to commit troops to the region to deter a Russian incursion — and that’s very likely to be a bone in Putin’s throat. In other words, it was Britain’s commitment to its European allies that prompted the Russian attack rather than what Applebaum and Massie see as its isolation and estrangement from them.

Applebaum and Massie get some unexpected (and doubtless unwelcome) support, however, from Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. He claims that the Brits are confecting the chemical-poisoning charges against Russia to “deflect attention” from their difficulties in the Brexit negotiations with the EU. I doubt that he’s suffering from any kind of syndrome, though. More plausibly, he’s exploiting the Brexit derangement syndrome of the Remainers in the West to do some deflecting of his own — deflecting attention from the Russian threat to the independence of the Baltics and the Kremlin’s real reasons for its reckless breaches of national sovereignty and international law.

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