Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments, now in their fifth year, at TheNation.com.)
As has every American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943, President Trump held a summit meeting with the Kremlin’s leader—Russian President Putin, in Helsinki on July 16. As with every president since Eisenhower, the underlying and overriding purpose was to reduce the chances of war between the two nuclear superpowers. With the new US-Russian Cold War fraught with possibilities of hot war on several fronts, from Ukraine and the Baltic and Black Sea regions to Syria, Trump had a vital national-security duty to meet in the most august way with Putin. As with previous summits, details will come later, but the two leaders reached several important agreements: to revive the necessary US-Russian diplomatic process tattered by recent events; to restore decades-long negotiations intended to reduce and regulate nuclear weapons and thus avert a new nuclear arms race; to jointly try to prevent Iran, Russia’s Middle East partner, from threatening “Israeli security,” as Putin formulated it, on that nation’s borders; to jointly relieve the “humanitarian” crisis in Syria, whose suffering was caused substantially by the aid rendered by Washington and its allies to anti-Assad “freedom fighters” and then, as collateral damage, by Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian war, in September 2015, in order to destroy the murderous Islamic State, which was threatening to take Damascus; and to promote American-Russian “business ties,” a nebulous aspiration, considering US and European economic sanctions on Russia. (This was possibly a signal by Trump that he would not object, as President Obama had, if the European Union diminished or terminated its sanctions, as several of its members wish to do and as would be wise.)
Historically, in what were once “normal” Cold War times, these summit achievements would have been widely supported, even applauded, across the American political spectrum, as they were, for example, even under President Nixon. But not Trump’s, which elicited an unprecedented torrent of denunciation by the US mainstream bipartisan (primarily Democratic but far from only) political-media establishment. Idioms varied, from The Washington Post to MSNBC and CNN, but the once-stately New York Times, as is now its nearly daily practice, set the tone. Its front-page headline on July 17 blared: “Trump, At Putin’s Side, Questions U.S. Intelligence on 2016 Election.” Another headline below explained, “Disdain for U.S. Institutions, and Praise for an Adversary.” The “reporting” itself was fulsomely prosecutorial, scarcely mentioning what Trump and Putin had agreed to. Times columnists competed to indict the American president. An early entry, on July 16, before anything was actually known about the summit results, came from Charles M. Blow, whose headline thundered: “Trump, Treasonous Traitor.” The title of the entry by Michelle Goldberg, on July 17, was less alliterative: “Trump Shows the World He’s Putin’s Lackey.” Much as I predicted in the weeks prior to the summit, the same toxic message bellowed through the realm of mainstream print and cable “news”: Trump had betrayed and shamed America before the entire world. As has been the case for years regarding “the Russia threat”—created mainly by US policy itself—no dissenting voices were included in the “discussions,” apart perhaps from unqualified Trump spokespeople.
The media coverage, not Trump himself at the summit, was shameful. But media were reporting “news,” of the kind they wanted, amplifying leading political figures, also across the spectrum. As usual on this subject, Senator John McCain led the vigilante posse: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” He added for personal emphasis: “One of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Most unusual, given the traditional non-political public role of intel chiefs, however, was former CIA director John Brennan, who quickly appeared as Trump’s prosecutor and judge, declaring that his behavior in Helsinki “exceeds the threshold” for impeachment and indeed “was nothing short of treasonous.” Only one major political figure stood apart from and above this political-media kangaroo court, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Defending the president’s meeting with Putin on behalf of US national security, Senator Paul emerged as the only visible statesman in Congress, a once-venerable role in the Senate but long abdicated.
It is, of course, still-unproven Russiagate allegations that caused this “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” as it has been termed. (Commentators wanted, it seemed, for Trump to publicly waterboard the Russian president into a confession.) Hence the charges that at Helsinki Trump allied with Putin “against US intelligence agencies.” Leave aside the murky role of those agencies in the origins of Russiagate, about which Brennan should be questioned under oath, and recall their part in persuading presidents to undertake the disasters that were the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion, Vietnam, Iraq, and Libya, among other now-regretted national mishaps. Recall too the 1975 Senate Church Committee that investigated and exposed unauthorized, even criminal, deeds by the “agencies,” particularly the CIA. Political scientists tell us that bureaucratic chiefs may change, but institutions not so much. And yet the pursuers of Trump, particularly liberal Democrats and their media, wish to judge him by the rectitude of “agencies” of which they were once the sharpest critics. “Derangement,” indeed.
So much so that an astonishing but exceedingly wise comment by Trump, before and after the summit, was barely noticed, or else was derided. It relates directly to the most fateful question in US-Russian relations: Why has the relationship since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 evolved into the new and more dangerous Cold War that it is today? For the past 15 years, the virtually unanimous American bipartisan establishment answer has been: Putin, or “Putin’s Russia,” is solely to blame. Washington’s decision to expand NATO to Russia’s border, bomb Russia’s traditional ally Serbia, withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, carry out military regime change in Iraq and Libya, provoke the Ukrainian crisis and back the coup against its legitimate president in 2014, and considerably more—none of these, only “Putin’s aggression,” led to the new Cold War. This explanation has long become a rigid bipartisan orthodoxy tolerating no dissent, no alternative explanations, excluding, even slurring, their well-informed proponents. (See, for example, my Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Soviet Russia, Chapter 7 and Epilogue, as well as my Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War.) The result has been for years no debate, no rethinking, and thus no revising of the triumphalist, winner-take-all “post–Cold War” approach first adopted by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and continued in spirit and most practices ever since, from President George W. Bush to President Obama. It has been an unassailable orthodoxy that has led now not only to a new Cold War but to the real danger of actual war with Russia, from Ukraine and the Baltic states to Syria.
And then suddenly, whether bowing to common sense or to wise advice, President Trump broke with this years-long, untrue, and dangerous orthodoxy. In a tweet on July 15, he wrote, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity.” Asked about the new Cold War in Helsinki, he formulated it more diplomatically: “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago.” Everything said here by President Trump is factually and analytically, even, profound. But it is also outright heresy and perhaps the real reason his meeting with Putin is being so traduced by political and media elites who have made their careers on orthodox dogmas at the expense of American and international security.
Heretics are scorned or worse, but sometimes in history they prevail. However strongly people may disapprove of the president’s other words and deeds, anyone, anywhere across our political spectrum, who wishes to avoid war with Russia—again, conceivably nuclear war—must support and encourage this Trump heresy until it is no longer heresy, until the full debate over reckless US policy since the 1990s finally ensues, and until that approach changes, as should have happened, as Trump said, “a long time ago.” It is not too late, but it may be the last chance.