I’d be the first to admit that the allegations about Donald Trump swirling around the web are both intriguing and repellent at the same time, as good a working definition of prurience as any. Not just the details, I mean, but the journalism involved. We’re all guilty, whether we wish to admit it or not, of a greater or lesser degree of unhealthy fascination with the private lives of the rich and powerful, and especially if there is some genuine public interest tied up in it all somewhere. This would appear to be the case here, at least as an allegation, because the suggestion is that Trump is somehow beholden to the Russians, and that, so the speculation runs, explains why he has been so “soft” on them.
If only it were that simple. If only the allegations could be proven or disproven, one way or another. If only, further, it could be proven that the allegations actually altered Trump’s policies on anything. None of that has emerged. I doubt that will happen soon, if ever. The thought also crosses one’s mind that western intelligence agencies may have some “dirt” on Putin. In which case there is a sort of personal state of “mutually assured destruction” between the two men, something not witnessed in global geopolitics before. Who knows? There is no corroboration for any of it. That is why the story is so intriguing, but the publication rather repellent.
Meantime the world should try and calm down a bit, and concentrate on the realities. And those are that Trump really is going to become president next Friday, he will be running the world’s most mighty military power and, still, its largest economy. He will be the leader of the free world, whatever he may or may not have gotten up to in a hotel room in his day (indeed, relatively few inhabitants of the White House can be said to have been saintly). He will be forging a new kind of friendship with Russia. All that we know for certain; it does not require triple-sourcing.
So, back to work, everyone. The most important single relationship in the world is the one between the presidents of the United States and of the Russian Federation. True or not, it would be tragic if these rumours were to do anything to make that more difficult than it needs to be. I rather suspect that the reason why Trump is “soft” – I use the term his critics use – on Russia is actually that he doesn’t see that Putin is a threat to the United States, or its values for that matter, and never has. It is the crudest of crude power politics, and requires no further explanation, and certainly no elaborate conspiracy theories involving the FSB, prostitutes, real estate deals and former British secret service agents.
Trump and Putin simply agree that Isis is the most virulent of the many diseases afflicting the Middle East’s body politic, and they agree, I am sorry to say, that the best and indeed only way to extirpate this particular evil, with its beheadings and mass rape and torture and cultural vandalism, is to defeat it militarily and take things from there. Collateral damage, in Aleppo but in principle anywhere, is acceptable. That’s about it really. Rather a short dossier, but it doesn’t need to be long to capture the essence of superpower politics in 2017.
If the Russians really have been making cyber mischief on the United States, as Boris Johnson is the latest to claim, then so what? Men of the world know that the Americans and Russians have been spying on each other, and on their respective friends and foes alike, and some mutual ones, for as long as anyone cares to remember. The British invented spycraft in the sixteenth century, and it is nothing new. Who, after all, was listening in to Angela Merkel’s mobile phone all these years? Not the Kremlin (well, not as far as we know).
Indeed I might go further. If Russia and America can work together on North Korea, that would be good for the entire world, and especially the South Koreans and Japanese who have been terrorised by the Kims for so long (and who, I think it is fair to add, have a far more credible claim to possession of weapons of mass destruction than Saddam Hussein ever did). Russia and the US could work together to ensure China’s vaulting ambitions in the South China Sea are tempered and don’t prove an additional threat to peace in that region.
It is possible – it is akin to multi-dimensional chess – that the US and Russia could exercise joint influence to resolve long-standing problems in the Middle East, maybe in some grand carve-up of influence and resources. Look, for example, at how Russia defused its antagonism to Turkey. I am not in favour of the US rolling over and allowing the Russians to do whatever they like in Ukraine or the Baltic states, if that is the price of US-Russian harmony. However, if it is true that America will not fight the Russians over these interests, in effect abandoning Nato and resetting US policy to its pre-1941 stance, then Europe itself needs to take care of its own defence, and put up a credible show of resistance and deterrence against the Russians if Trump’s America cannot be relied upon. Whatever happens to the EU, it is in no one’s interests in Europe for Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, let alone the likes of Poland, Romania or Bulgaria, to feel as though they are being pushed into some reborn Russian “sphere of influence”. It has happened before, the legacy left by the strangely pally relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, so there are some unfortunate precedents there that many in Washington don’t like to reflect on.
As history shows, intelligence, spying and blackmail, affairs of the heart and the private financial affairs of statesmen and stateswomen, in the end, only have a limited impact on international affairs. It is not to trivialise the important work of intelligence agencies to state the obvious; that America and Russia have interests in common, and with leaders who respect one another (and even if they don’t) they will therefore be pushed closer by the pursuit of those common interests.
Thinking parochially for a moment, sometimes that will be good for Britain. The fact that there will be no thermonuclear conflict between the US and Russia is good news, surely. If America edges away from Nato, then the UK can use its military (relative) strength in Europe to secure a better UK-EU trading and economic relationship, in return for polling of sovereignty on defence. Post-Brexit trade agreements covering goods, natural resources and financial services could be reached between Britain, Russia and America respectively. Make no mistake, the world is moving in a more protectionist direction, and one where the crude realties of power politics will subsume any remaining ethical dimensions left over from the Obama or the Bush-Blair era. There will be no more wars for civilisation of democracy. There will be more wars, or the threat of them, to protect vital American and Russian interests. That is the world as it soon will be. We should drop our fantasies of Trump having to resign before he takes office (I freely admit it could arrive later) and get on facing a future where the world is being run by Vladimir and Donald. Britain, like every other second- or third-tier power, will have to make the best of it, long after these rumours have been flushed away.
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