National Security & Defense

Trump’s Helsinki Discord

President Trump speaks during a news conference following his summit with Russian President Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)
His dismaying comments undercut the country he leads.

Donald Trump is not, and never will be, the Moscow correspondent for The Nation magazine, and he shouldn’t sound like it.

The left-wing publication is prone to extend sympathetic understanding to adversaries of the United States and find some reason, any reason, to blame ourselves for their external aggression and internal suppression. Especially to the regime of Vladimir Putin, which is supposedly forced into its brute-force cynicism by its “encirclement” by the West.

This is an old trope going back to the Cold War, used as an excuse every time Moscow tramples a neighbor and lies about it. This rationalization of Russian adventurism is bad enough when it is trotted out by opinion-makers — both on the blame-America-first left and the Buchananite right — but even worse when it passes the lips of a president of the United States.

Trump is extremely defensive about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, which he believes is being used to undermine the legitimacy of his victory. Thus, he resorts to sophistry, blame-shifting, and obfuscation to avoid fully confronting the fact. That he did this standing next to the foreign perpetrator of the crime in Helsinki was depressing, if not surprising.

More startling were Trump’s statements blaming both the United States and Russia for poor relations. He tweeted it before his meeting with Putin and then confirmed the point when pressed about it in his news conference: “I hold both countries responsible.”

Ah, yes, both countries. One is given to invading its neighbors, rigging elections, killing dissidents (including on foreign soil), and violating international agreements and norms in the hopes of reestablishing something like the old Russian empire. The other has a strange, but apparently unbreakable, habit of electing new presidents who naïvely believe that they can reset relations with Russia based on their personality and goodwill.

The sophisticated version of this argument is that the West has provoked Russia by pushing NATO up to its borders, allegedly in violation of assurances that it wouldn’t.

James Kirchick of the Brookings Institution has rebutted this case. James Baker assured Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward,” but he was speaking when East Germany still existed. There never was any formal agreement that NATO wouldn’t expand, which it did after the Soviet Union collapsed. But only at the behest of new entrants, who had enough experience with Russian expansionism over the centuries to want to join an alliance that could afford some protection.

Trump talked about the United States as an entity he stands apart from and critiques accordingly.

By no reasonable standard was this threatening to Russia. In fact, Putin himself said in 2002: “Every country has the right to choose the way it ensures its security. This holds for the Baltic states as well. Secondly, and more specifically, NATO is primarily a defensive bloc. I can only repeat what I have said several times. The enlargement of the bloc is supposed to improve international security and the security of its member countries.”

Just so. Only subsequently did Putin decide that the notion that nations should have sacrosanct boundaries and be able to determine their own fate is too provocative for him to handle. He has expressed his disquiet in characteristic fashion — by rolling tanks and little green men into countries on Russia’s periphery.

This shouldn’t be hard to denounce and distinguish from our own behavior. Trump has a strange ability to abstract himself from his own administration that he often comments on as if he’s a pundit with no responsibility for it. In Helsinki, he talked about the United States the same way, as an entity he stands apart from and critiques accordingly.

The result was dismaying, and stood in stark contrast to his Russian counterpart. Putin knew exactly what he was doing, was always in control, and never said anything to undercut his own country.

In this sense, if no other, Trump should take notes from the man he refuses to criticize.

© 2018 King Features Syndicate

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Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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