Goat rodeo in Helsinki: As American diplomacy reaches a new low, perhaps it’s time to start looking for the upside | The Monthly

As American diplomacy reaches a new low, perhaps it’s time to start looking for the upside


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

July 18, 2018

Goat rodeo in Helsinki

By Richard Cooke
As American diplomacy reaches a new low, perhaps it’s time to start looking for the upside


“You don’t know what’s going to come out of this meeting,” said the American ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman. Watching the facial expressions of Trump-adjacent officials has become almost a hobby, and when Huntsman made this statement to Meet The Press, he seemed to be bracing himself physically. He didn’t look quite as dire as White House chief of staff John Kelly, so visibly unhappy at a NATO breakfast that an official said he must have been “displeased because he was expecting a full breakfast and there were only pastries and cheese”. I’m sure shit sandwiches really are harder to digest in the AM, but Huntsman knew he would be eating his at the all-day buffet: Donald Trump face-to-face with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, with no aides or stenographers, scheduled for 90 minutes (in the end they went over time). What could go wrong? What could go right?

It was a meeting, not a summit, Huntsman insisted, and the State Department kept repeating the distinction to reporters, right up to the moment Trump called it a summit himself. The president and his foreign policy outfit are rarely reading the same book, let alone on the same page, even when that page is handed to him physically. After Putin’s fraudulent re-election in March, Trump ignored written instructions in his briefing papers that read “do not congratulate”, even telling the Russian president about the “stupid people” who wrote the note. In another piece of failed pre-emptive damage control, Huntsman said the non-summit was “to hold the Russians accountable for what they did”. He was talking, in hope, about the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which had just produced another round of FBI indictments. Trump had other ideas. Invited to describe Russia’s malfeasance at the press conference afterwards, he instead said “We’re all to blame”, while Putin, alongside him at another podium, did an impression of a straight face.

In the past, moments of perceived American weakness like this got names, shorthands to aid endless repetition. When George H. W. Bush warned against “suicidal nationalism” in Ukraine in 1991, it was tarred as the “Chicken Kiev” speech. Barack Obama’s hatchet-burying mission to Moscow became part of a so-called “apology tour” (prophetically, when Hillary Clinton handed a red plastic “reset” button to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, it contained a mistake: the Cyrillic in fact said “overload” instead). So far, most names for Trump’s effort in Helsinki are unprintable, though one infosec commentator called it a “goat rodeo” and “Yalta on ether”. It represented not just a violation of diplomatic norms, but a wake for them.

Trump siding with murderers and meddlers against American legal institutions is no longer surprising, but here his manner was new. He was quiescent: the judo handshakes and preening walk he shows with other world leaders disappeared, and in the presence of Putin he cut a meek figure, even glancing at the ground. In the parlance of our times (and his biggest supporters), he looked cucked. There must be few more worrying signs at State than Donald Trump having a sudden modesty outbreak. Putin is a skilled manipulator in these arenas – a former State Department official told The New Yorker that Trump was like “an amateur boxer up against Muhammad Ali”, and the Russian leader looked intent on not just finishing Trump, but setting a personal high score. The humiliation was so complete that the American president left Helsinki enthusing about what he called an “interesting” offer: Russian “investigators”, Putin suggested, could themselves assist the American inquiry into Russian electoral interference. That’s quite a bonding experience.

Sergey Lavrov called the outcome “better than super” – because even the wildest dreams don’t get this wild – but American reviews were not so glowing. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” said Senator John McCain. Former US ambassador to Russia William J. Burns called it “the single most embarrassing performance by an American president on the world stage that I’ve ever seen”. The former CIA director John Brennan said it was “nothing short of treasonous”. It was so bad that even parts of Fox News condemned the president. Does Putin have compromising material on Trump? The question moved into the mainstream, though there was a strong counterargument. Surely a real Russian asset would be better at hiding it than this.

The former Secretary of State James Baker used to talk about “bladder diplomacy”, the epic, break-free and well-hydrated meetings he undertook, some lasting almost ten hours. This brand of crude psychology, rather than the bladder diplomacy of the pee tape or any other kompromat, is all that’s required to exert influence over Trump. His mental incontinence means he can only pay attention for a few minutes, struggles with reading anything without pictures, and broadcasts his thoughts and feelings every morning. He is arrogant and insecure in equal measure, and even his allies say he makes no distinction between the national and the personal. “I think the president has difficulty conflating how people treat him personally with representing our national interests,” said Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair. It’s an extraordinary on-the-record comment, when you think about it, one that really means the president is an easy mark, and everyone knows it. 

This malleability and distraction by shiny objects has been readily exploited. The French pioneered it – see how The Washington Post described Trump at a Parisian parade: “he … eagerly leaned forward as he took in the spectacle, frequently jostling his wife or French President Emmanuel Macron when he saw something that particularly delighted him. Whenever troops were before him, Trump jumped to his feet and applauded with an enthusiasm that exceeded the response of those around him,” the paper said. He may even have been allowed an ice cream on the way home. Chinese President Xi Jinping reinvented a special status called “state visit-plus” (“China Won” read TIME’s cover afterwards); Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe handed over a gold-plated golf club; President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte laid out a “red carpet like nobody … has probably ever received”. Instead of challenging Manila on its policy of killing suspected drug dealers, Trump asked his staff why America couldn’t do the same.

It’s exactly the brash and idiotic form of “strength” Trump supporters prize that makes their man so weak. Most of Putin’s serious domestic adversaries have also been billionaires, and he has dispensed with them easily, so he understands the transactional mentality of mercantilism well. There are limitations to seeing everything as a deal or potential publicity stunt, especially when coupled with a gnawing need for affirmation. The New York Times reported that Senator Mitch McConnell told associates that Trump is “inclined to treat criticism of Russian meddling in the United States as giving credence to unproven allegations that his campaign colluded with foreign actors”. Trump has blurted out similar things to strangers on a New Jersey golf course, and mentions his electoral win at every available (or unavailable) opportunity. Putin can have Crimea – he’ll take Wisconsin.

Russian manipulation also draws on a greater gullibility – the susceptibility of Trump’s voters to disinformation. For the GRU’s flotilla of fake news to land, its operatives had to understand the wants and needs of the red states, and this cynical view of America has proved more than half-right. Russian intelligence identified the locus of control in the GOP as the NRA. They guessed correctly that Trump supporters would side with white foreigners over non-white Americans, and, according to the news and analysis site Vox, a study of Russian-bought Facebook ads found they sought to divide Americans on race more than any other issue.

This alliance based on semi-latent white nationalism – you could call it white internationalism – is not going away. If anything, the active measures were not active enough, and bots flooding social media were often outstripped by talkback callers, something that has continued after Helsinki. Some Trump supporters are nonplussed by the president’s submissive display, but many sound more grateful than chagrined. One caller said to C-SPAN: “I’ll try not to sound too awful, but I want to thank the Russians for interfering in our election to stop Hillary Clinton becoming president.” The cult is becoming a suicide cult.

Putinism is already an end point of Trumpism: the natural conclusion of constant degradation of the media, lying designed to exhaust rather than to persuade, shabby national pageantry, voter suppression, and open graft. The historian Timothy Snyder wrote that Putin is “offering masculinity as an argument against democracy”, and Trump is doing something similar, even if he is the smaller man. Australia’s own Tony Abbott shows the reach of this approach: as prime minister he offered to shirtfront Putin personally, but regards Trump’s foreign policy largely as a success, because of its stylistic muscularity. That’s no longer just a psychosexual issue to be worked out behind closed doors, but an international malaise, a global acting out of fragile masculinity.

There is an exception, though, in Trump’s caricature of the American man. He is not a warrior. It’s too early to talk about saving graces, and perhaps the wrong time even to mention hope. But so far, Trump’s antipathy to military action seems to be genuine. If he breaches diplomatic protocol by breaking Washington consensus on belligerence, then disasters are relative. He may visit calamities on his own country, but if he is too gun-shy and easily stymied to attack others, then those calamities must be ranked against another Iraq, or another Libya, a new Syria or more fresh blood in Afghanistan. (Someone pointed out that after eighteen years of fighting there, the Afghan war is now old enough to enlist in itself). Trump may have found an accidental solution to the problem of American warmongering: a president who appears strong to his base, and, at the same time, weak to his diplomatic peers. We have already seen the result of decades of American decisiveness, and perhaps it is time for some bumbling at the inception of “strength projection”, and not its conclusion. If others count their luck and hold the peace, that really would be the ultimate deal.


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Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US Correspondent and Contributing Editor. He is also The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.


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