The world as we know it is in the process of being knocked off-kilter — there's a new brand of diplomacy in town
What happens tomorrow in Helsinki matters, especially to America’s long-term allies
On Wednesday afternoon last week, Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the US, was viciously assaulted by two youths in broad daylight in the heart of London, barely half a kilometre from Buckingham Palace.
His family released a photograph showing the 74-year-old former ambassador lying on a hospital bed, nose broken, lip split, one eye swollen shut and his face streaked with blood.
It was a shocking image, not just because of the brutal nature of the injuries, but because the violent attack on a high-profile diplomat, seemingly safe within the precincts of his home city, shattered comfortable perceptions of what is normal.
Sir Christopher had been on his way to a series of media appearances to discuss US president Donald Trump's visit to the UK last week, which was greeted with protest marches and rallies. That very day, he had written an article in a national newspaper urging his fellow Britons to respect the man and the office, and to remember that the US “is our single most important partner and ally”.
Despite attempts by nationalists to suggest otherwise, there was no evidence that the assault was politically motivated: Sir Christopher had fallen foul of random hooliganism. But the shocking image of the respected diplomat, released as Europe braced for a week-long visit by the unpredictable Mr Trump, gave graphic form to a growing sense of unease that the world as we know it is in the process of being knocked off-kilter.
Diplomats fight for the interests of their countries, but they do so politely, tactfully — diplomatically. They most certainly do not get punched in the face. But, as the past week has demonstrated, there’s a new, brash brand of diplomacy in town, practised by a pugilistic US president with a short fuse, thin skin and little respect for the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.
In Belgium on Wednesday for the annual NATO summit, Trump ignored the agenda and instead launched an unprecedented assault on Germany which, he said, on account of its reliance on a new Russian gas pipeline, was “totally controlled by Russia”.
It was as though the president didn’t know that half of Germany had been seized by Russia in 1945 and remained lost behind the Iron Curtain until 1990. It was an insensitive suggestion that provoked indignation on both sides of the Atlantic.
The assault left German chancellor Angela Merkel — herself from the former East Germany — visibly shocked. Another senior diplomat had been metaphorically punched in the face by a hooligan.
Back home in the US, fellow Republican Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that Trump’s unpredictable behaviour was in danger of diminishing America’s global influence and alienating its allies. “Sometimes,” he said, "it feels like we punch our friends in the nose and hold our hand out to people who are working strongly against us, like Russia and Putin.”
All eyes now are on Trump’s meeting tomorrow with Putin in Helsinki. Russia, as Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US ambassador to NATO, said last week, “is now looking for the weak spots that will divide this alliance — that’s why we have to stay strong as a major deterrent. The discord is music to Putin’s ears”.
Trump is a populist contrarian, determined to upset the apple cart, supposedly in the best interests of America. His modus operandi is the political equivalent of disruptive technological innovation, which, according to one definition, “lacks refinement, often has performance problems because it is new, appeals to a limited audience and may not yet have a proven practical application”. Yet, ultimately, it will change everything.
But for Trump’s critics, Trump may be nothing more than an attention-seeking narcissist, convinced of his own brilliance (“I am a very stable genius”, as he mentioned again this week). He is constantly driven to seek recognition, if not approval.
Witness the grenade he threw last week into Britain’s delicate Brexit negotiations: Theresa May’s plan, he said in remarks made to a pro-Brexit newspaper, would “probably kill” a US trade deal. He had told May how better to manage Brexit, he said, but “she didn’t listen to me”. For good measure, he added that Boris Johnson, May’s troublesome and recently resigned foreign secretary, would make “a great prime minister”.
Read more on the Helsinki summit:
There's a long list of issues that might be addressed productively at tomorrow’s US-Russia summit in Helsinki, a venue chosen for its Cold War symbolism. For a start, there’s Russia's continuing support, in defiance of global opinion, of the Assad regime in Syria. Then there’s Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. Or how about Russia’s blatant meddling in the democratic process in other countries, including the US — quite possibly to Trump's personal advantage?
All the signs, however, are that none of these pressing concerns will be addressed by a US president likely to be more focused on promoting his own image as a savvy, counter-intuitive negotiator than on achieving any meaningful diplomatic progress.
In Helsinki, as former State Department co-ordinator for sanctions policy Daniel Fried put it earlier this month, US politicians of all hues fear Trump will be “overly focused on immediate media reaction and overestimate the power of personal chemistry, both in general and in particular with Putin”.
Summits are often merely talking shop and photo-ops, but what happens in Helsinki matters, especially to America’s long-term European allies. They have watched with growing dismay as the populist president has blundered his way through the world order, kicking away the supports as he goes. He has sabotaged global unity in the stand-off against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, suggested that Russia, kicked out of the G8 group of countries in 2014 for its invasion of Ukraine, should be invited back into the fold. He has also embarked on a mutually ruinous trade war with some of America’s biggest trading partners.
In business and in politics, Trump prides himself on being able to “read” his opponents — we can expect tweets from Helsinki proclaiming Putin to be a great guy he can trust and do business with.
Without doubt, Trump is a disruptive force in global politics, though it remains to be seen whether he has an alternative proposition to offer in place of the world order he appears determined to bring down. What is certain, however — whatever is said in Helsinki — is that Putin most certainly has.