Trump and Putin

With Donald Trump there is plenty of guessing and not a lot of surety in gauging where he is going to go next. Predictability, particularly in timing, seems to be elusive with the president. But recently Trump seems to be returning to themes that he displayed early during the Republican primaries. And he appears to be once more challenging the neo-Conservatives within the GOP.

Foreign policy is the primary battlefield for this struggle. Trump’s overtures to Vladimir Putin have stuck in the craw of the establishment. Moreover, his frequent criticism of John McCain and the Bushes indicates that he is serious in altering the vision of a new world order. For Trump, he is calling out groups that greatly advocate war to promote a classically liberal economic order.

Evidence of this was provided by the president in a speech in Montana. There he ridiculed George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” from the 1988 campaign. Trump admitted that he did not know what he meant, which makes two of us for it threw me then and puzzles me now. It was an invocation of charity under the auspices of a presumed “kinder, gentler” world order.

During the reign of the Bushes it was anything but “kinder and gentler.” Indeed, the thousand points of light were more like bombs on Panama and Iraq. Under George W. more of the same. Nothing like destroying the village in order to “save it.” Moreover, the attempt to exploit the opportunities in the former Soviet Union seemed to motivate these latter-day philanthropists.

As a result, the United States seemed overtaken by hubris. NATO was pushed further to the east and Russia’s very sovereignty was threatened. During Barack Obama’s presidency it reached its zenith with the coup in the Ukraine in 2014. Putin, who was not to be fobbed off by being a member of the G-8, broke from that arrangement and took the strategically vital (for him) Crimea.

Putin could be forgiven for not wanting to be Milosevic in Yugoslavia. Having witnessed the doublecrossing of Muammar Gaddafi and his subsequent murder at the hands of a fanatic mob, Putin smartly did not trust the word of the U.S. Indeed, the “thousand points of light” seemed more like rays of death for the Russian leader.

Trump was correct to regard this approach as imperial and expansive, not vital to American interest. Certainly, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon would have agreed.

Eisenhower certainly had no problem rebuking Great Britain, Israel and France at Suez in 1956 and Nixon pursued “detente” with the USSR and China in the 1970s. What they realized is that both the USSR and the Russian Federation are not a threat to the United States military or an economic challenger. Poachers like Harry Truman, who boasted that the U.S. could get “85 percent” of what it wanted, dangerously overreached.

Trump meeting with Putin is a step in the right direction. And his return to spheres of influence is the surest guarantee to peace.