Trump has shown little political savvy and even less powers of analysis. However, it is hard to see the USA as having the moral high ground to justify the hysterical moral outrage generated by Trump’s incompetence when it has done exactly the same thing many times in many places. Syria is a case of double standards. Great powers always promote their own interests irrespective of their domestic arrangements. Americans don’t care about MH17 because lots of Americans were not involved so Trump was not going to raise that with Putin – if he was even aware of it. Australia would be well advised to keep out of this but we won’t because MH17 is important to us.
The Trump/Putin meeting sheds some light on a number of things that have not received much attention in our media. There has been no shortage of analysis by others. So I will only focus on a few points.
Trump began with some sensible remarks about getting along with a powerful country that has nukes but then drifted into another dimension. In a nutshell, he screwed up on a grand scale.
- Putin is just as consummate a liar as Trump and has a very Russian ability to deny things that everyone knows to be the case. There can be little doubt that Russia tried to influence the American elections to get a candidate more sympathetic to Russian interests. It is however a bit hard to stomach the hysterical outpourings of moral outrage from the United States which has a long history of doing exactly the same thing to other countries which threatened US interests. Similarly, while the Russian annexation of Crimea was illegal and its support of one side in the Ukrainian civil war can be criticised the USA is hardly in a position to cast the first stone when it comes to overthrowing democracies that did not suit its commercial or strategic interests. The invasion of Iraq for example was equally illegal and has had far more disastrous consequences for the world. Also, while the US intelligence agencies did not cover themselves in glory over Iraq, Trump’s public attack over Russian hacking on the basis that his friend told him they didn’t do it hardly shows profound powers of analysis.
- Australians have criticised Trump for not raising MH17 which could be seen as rather naive of us except that our political and media comments are deigned for domestic consumption. Australians, Dutch and Malaysians care about MH17 because our people were killed but Americans are not interested because few Americans were involved. This is perhaps another lesson for us that the US will not become involved in things we may want but which don’t matter to them. It is not just Trump but long standing policy, e.g. Kennedy refusing to support us over Dutch new Guinea.
- Syria is another case of double standards. Russia is supporting Assad in a civil war because it is in its strategic and to a lesser extent economic interests to do so. The claim that the Assad government is the legitimate one because it is recognised as such by the United Nations is probably legally correct but is a debating point only for Russia. The Americans are supporting the rebels (who look like being the losers) because they say Assad is a brutal dictator – which he is. When asked why the US supported the equally brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, President Franklin D Roosevelt said that “I know he’s a son of a bitch but he is our son of a bitch”. The real reason the US opposes Assad is because he is Russia’s son of a bitch and not theirs. Australia follows the US line because of the Alliance.
- Trump has lost a lot of credibility – if he ever had any – by backtracking yet again and trying to wriggle out of what he said. He might have got something useful if he had kept his big mouth shut and looked for a few real achievements. Even Australia was mildly critical! Turnbull had two bob each way by saying Trump was a patriot but genuflecting in the direction of the American cold war warriors. He needs to keep Trump on side without getting others in the USA offside – not an easy task when you are dealing with people who see things in terms of good and evil so long as they are accepted as the good guys.
So Trump’s attempt to improve relations with Russia has probably had the opposite effect. There are perceptive and honest Americans who have no illusions abut their country’s history but most don’t wish to know about that when focussing on the sins of others. Australia would be well advised to keep out of what is none of our business but we won’t probably because of the domestic aspects of MH17.
Cavan Hogue is a former Australian Ambassador in Moscow and other places.