The meeting between US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit, which took place on 7-8 July in Hamburg, confirmed the expected naivete of the American president. But what scared me was Trump’s belief that the West and Russia are equal in their values and goals.
The fact that Trump and Putin discussed the Russian meddling into the US presidential election, and that Trump accepted Putin’s claims at face value that Russia was not involved is sad and naive. This is doubly so as all US security and intelligence agencies repeatedly confirm the exact opposite of what their Denier-in-Chief publicly tweets, while his inner circle is being investigated because of their Russian connections. I did not know whether to laugh or cry when Trump and Putin announced they wanted to set up a cyber security unit, so that election-tampering cybercrimes were „under control“.
The image this idea brought to my mind was of creating an anti-burglary working group with a burglar who had just cleared out your house. But at least this farce will not create any real damage – except turning the US administration into a laughing stock and damaging the US‘ global image – as the message from Trump is clear: Feel free to attack us, nothing will happen to you if you deny it nicely and with a smile.
The real damage was done a bit later in the meeting, when Trump agreed to Putin’s „demand“ that the two countries will not interfere in each other’s affairs. Donald Trump has thus equated Russian election manipulations and repeated attacks on the US democratic system with a long-standing cornerstone of US policy, to support democracy and the rule of law around the world – especially in places where there is little of both.
The Kremlin is undoubtedly excited about this result, as it allows it to claim that the growing civil unrest in Russia was caused by American meddling in Russian domestic affairs and not by the ever worsening economic and political situation in Russia.
But many authoritarian politicians in Central Europe will be excited too, as they have built their career on fear-mongering and fighting an imaginary enemy labelled interchangeably as Washington, Brussels or Berlin. After Trump shot down free trade from the agenda, limited US involvement around the world, and refused to fight climate change he chose to kill the US support for democracy-building in countries where simply asking for a free election may land you in jail.
And he did not even get anything in return for this enormous concession to Putin – unless you count flattering coverage in pro-Kremlin media and praising tweets from Kremlin trolls.
The reason is simple – whatever Putin says, he cannot and will not stop his asymmetric activities. They are too effective both financially and because the West – with its democratic rules on political activity, free speech and media freedom – is unable to protect itself against an autocrat that single-handedly manages his resources and changes the rules of engagement as he chooses.
I would not care that Trump lost to Putin so badly if it did not mean that all the West lost with him. So, we will have to step forwards even more than in the past – as individual countries that still hold democracy dear, as Europe, or as the rest of the West.
Given how the US deals with Russia (and others) behind the back of its closest European partners, we need to invest much more in the strategic leadership, which was so often provided by the US in the past.
There are far too many red flags raised by the Trump administration. To name only a few: making deals with Russia on Syria while cutting Europe out of the discussion; dithering about the validity of Nato’s mutual defence clause (Article 5) and transatlantic defence cooperation; closing the US to international trade and trying to dismantle the Paris agreement on climate change.
All this means we need to work together, not only as the European Union, but also by engaging with other European countries to make sure they are not left behind. We can also continue what we have done so well in the past few months – bringing on board our strategic partners from Canada to Japan.
A few years ago I would not have expected myself to say that the EU is the leader of the West. So, maybe despite all the headaches he has caused and will undoubtedly still cause, we should thank Donald Trump.
He has done what Vladimir Putin’s threats have failed to do – unite us and make us focus on the future as we push forward in closer integration, defence and security cooperation, as well as forging trade deals that strengthen our economies.
Written for EUObserver.