First Trump-Putin meeting prompts G20 relief
The hotly anticipated meeting between President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin brought relief to the other G20 summiteers because it did not sink into a vituperative “she said, he said, they said” exhibition of macho pugilism.
Instead, it was a cool-headed encounter that went far beyond its allocated time and seemed so engrossing that even Melania Trump failed to entice her husband away from the erstwhile bare-chested equestrian.
After the meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a ceasefire in southwest Syria but its impact remains to be seen. A new low-key session of indirect peace talks on Syria starts in Geneva on Monday but an overall deal is far out of reach.
None of the participants has the power to implement any peace deal. They represent some but not all forces fighting on the ground and terrorists including Islamic State or Al Qaeda do not have seats at the table. All negotiate indirectly through United Nations mediators.
The anti-Russian allegations of both Republic and Democratic Senators in the US may please their voter-banks but look misplaced when seen from the perspective of the G20 summit in Hamburg, where both Western and non-Western nations are gathered.
The Senate’s recent 97 to 2 vote favoring among other things imposition of “new sanctions to deter Russian aggression against the U.S. and its allies,” makes the Washington Senators look as if they live on a planet different from the one inhabited by the six billion people represented at Hamburg.
However unpalatable it might seem to some in America, the world does not see the Trump and Putin administrations as stubborn enemies headed towards a new Cold War or hubristic Russian invasions of NATO members.
Most governments at the summit accept that there is no firm proof that the Russian government or its covert minions caused Trump to be elected President of all Americans.
American intelligence agencies may have propagated this view but seemed to carry even less credibility at the summit than among Trump’s diehard supporters. For summiteers, the intelligence assessments were very educated guesswork but guesswork, nevertheless.
Even if true, no G20 government wants to be dragged into taking sides for or against Putin’s Russia simply because of internal American politics.
No summiteer believes that Putin may invade Poland and the Baltic states, which are NATO members, or occupy all of Ukraine, because it is not a NATO member.
However, all do believe that Putin is a wily operator who wants to make “Russia great again”. So, he will continuously push the envelope at the edges.
That would include making it abundantly clear to all Americans that the US military cannot roam the world as it pleases and the White House cannot willfully take down foreign governments that oppose US policies.
Therefore, Putin should be deterred but hopefully without coercion and through talks.
Most G20 members perceive the coercive use of American military and financial power to change the behavior of authoritarian governments as a phase that has outlived its usefulness to the world’s people.
Everyone agrees that Islamist terrorists must be destroyed. But that is where the agreement ends.
Calls in America to further punish Russia and Iran through tougher sanctions for other transgressions in Ukraine or Syria have little support among the G20.
But feelings are mixed on whether to lift existing sanctions on both countries, at what pace and in exchange for what. China and India may favor a faster pace of relief while Germany and some Europeans may prefer to move at snail’s pace. Worsening them has little support.
Negotiations on any global problem are the only way forward for which the Trump administration may expect support, including on Syria, the Gulf and North Korea. Trump is learning that and so should his visceral opponents in the US.
Nobody wants a widening of wars anywhere in the world or the start of new Cold Wars, regardless of the claims of Trump’s American and other critics that he is bad for the US and for the world.
Perhaps, he is bad for the US and world but preventing the duly elected President of the earth’s most powerful nation from talking with foreign governments to whittle down differences is not a path acceptable to the other powerful nations assembled at G20.
Weakening him from within is even less acceptable because it increases political risk in many parts of the world.
China and Russia are America’s main competitors and rivals at G20. The European Union is a competitor but not a rival. All are taking Trump’s measure and learning how to deal with him because for better or worse, Americans elected Trump as their President.
He is the person, who is America for all other governments. Weakening him from inside is imprudent.
This may get ulcers screaming in his opponents in the US, but G20 does not turn upon disputes within America’s electorate.
Other major governments, including China, Russia, France, Germany and India think it legitimate to chisel away at the almost untrammeled US hegemony in global affairs since Cold War’s end.
Everyone fears US power and none wants to push so far as to invite sanctions or armed conflicts. But none has yet branded Trump as an irrational or unbalanced actor in global affairs, as some in the US would have the world believe. All would prefer more talk and less saber rattling.
And all agree that terrorists, whether Islamists or others, must be destroyed. For that Trump is receiving support. But it could fritter away if he fails to defuse the Saudi-Qatar cold war in the Gulf.