The G20 Meeting and U.S./Russia Relations
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 3 Dec 2018
2 Dec 2018 – What follows are my responses to questions addressed to me by Sputnik News Agency in Moscow. These responses were submitted on December 1, 2018. Although the focus was on the ongoing G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, the real concern was the future of U.S./Russia relations and how these relations should be managed to avoid arms races, geopolitical rivalry, and ideological tensions. Ironically, of all the weaknesses in the Trump approach to the world, his apparent wish for a normalized relationship with Russia was what most antagonized the American political class, whether Democrat or Republican. Indeed, it so antagonized the established order in this country to such a degree as to undermine Trump’s apparent intention to downgrade NATO and Atlanticism while normalizing and improving relations with Russia. It is always uncertain to assess the real motivations of Trump, which here may involve some kind of vulnerability on his part for undisclosed and awkward economic entanglements or embarrassing personal behavior, but whatever the explanation, the world would be better off with a positive geopolitical atmosphere, and that means cooperative behavior with Russia and China. In our delegitimizing of Trump it is important not to lose sight of the ingredients of sustainable world peace. The Sputnik text is slightly modified.
- The talks of G20 leaders led to a possible breakthrough on the global trading system. How likely is any progress to be achieved? Will the US be onboard with this?
I would be very surprised if there is any outcome of the G20 meeting that can be properly called a ‘breakthrough.’ The leaders of these governments do not have a shared understanding of what would constitute a mutually beneficial world trade framework. Perhaps, such a consensus never existed, yet in the period after World War II, the United States leadership of the West was able to generate what has alternatively been call ‘the liberal economic order’ or ‘the Washington consensus.’ These arrangements rested on giving the World Bank and IMF a central role in stabilizing global conditions, including currency markets, and rested on a rule-based set of procedures. Its performance was assessed almost solely by the rate of global economic growth, which overlooked both issues of the equitable distribution of the benefits of growth and the regulation of adverse ecological side effects.
Since the Trump presidency, there has emerged serious ambiguities as to whether the United States, the leading world economy, was itself willing to participate any longer in the liberal world order. Such doubts arose after Trump rejected the Trans Pacific Partnership, sought the renegotiation of North American arrangements set forth in the NAFTA agreements, and adopted a series of protectionist measures inconsistent with the promotion of the most efficient use of capital, a major guideline of the neoliberal ideology that guided American foreign economic policy ever since 1945.
The United States, in particular, during the Trump presidency regards world trade as a s sequence of transactions rather than as systemic aggregate of institutions, rules, and procedures by which to regulate and facilitate transnational capital flows and trade relations. By this I mean, that the U.S. wants now to proceed on the basis of economic advantage for itself in each economic policy context rather than promote an overall framework that benefits all participants in the world economy. Under Trump the United States no longer perceives the more structural advantages of having a global trading system that provides a framework that binds together all countries that adhere to principle of market economics on the assumption of shared interests. Of course, such a framework is only a practical possibility if there is a strong political will on the part of leading governments to proceed in this manner. It is difficult to be confident about making assessments of government intentions, but I think most governments would still like to retain a systemic framework for the world economy with the exception of the United States, which wants to leverage its strength in a more flexible and muscular diplomatic atmosphere. We should await the final declaration from Buenos Aires before reaching firm conclusions as to whether this cleavage will be exposed or hidden from public view.
This is a different cleavage than existed during the Cold War when fundamental ideological differences led to dual structures for international and transnational economic relations. During the Cold War the market economies organized their trade and fiscal relations within the liberal framework established under American leadership. The Soviet bloc of countries was neither invited to join this liberal world order nor did it seek entry, but rather maintained its economic relations based on the orientation of state socialism as tempered by Soviet hegemonic leadership and the pursuit of national and regional interests.
- Meanwhile, Trump is reportedly ready to hold talks with Putin after Russia releases Ukrainian sailors. How high are hopes that the two leaders will sit down for talks in the future given the development?
It is important for Russian society to understand that Trump seems to be handling diplomacy particularly with Russia, but also with other countries, mainly on the basis of his calculations of domestic politics in the United States as connected with his ‘America First’ mantra. Anti-Trump forces in the U.S. have, wrongfully in my view, concentrated their criticism of Trump, including the apparent focus of the investigations of wrongdoing by the Special Counsel, on the supposedly improper relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential elections. In doing this, it overlooks the importance of establishing peaceful and constructive relations between Russia and the United States, keeping in mind that these two dominant states are the world’s leading nuclear weapons states. World peace depends on avoiding a second Cold War in any form, and this reality is obscured by the focus on alleged Russian interference in the American elections and Trump’s supposed collusion in this process.
Some degree of interference no doubt occurred, but it should have raised few eyebrows in Washington, have been a staple instrument of American soft power intervention in many countries over the course of several decades. Furthermore, the belligerent tone of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as well as the outlook of her closest advisors, gave good reason for Moscow to fear a Clinton victory in 2016, and do their best to avoid such an outcome. This is not intended to reject efforts to insulate American elections from manipulation from without or within. When thinking of the wrongfulness of Russian tactics we as a country tend to overlook the wrongfulness of gerrymandering, racial bias, special interests and money being used to manipulate election results in the United States. Both types of interference are incompatible with a legitimate democratic political process.
On the immediate prospects for productive relations with Russia following the Ukrainian incidents, I think it is likely that bilateral talks can be held in coming months, maybe even in coming weeks. It should be realized, however, that the main American focus now is in resetting the economic relationship between the United States in China in ways that avoid a trade war and do not make either side appear to be the loser in this important confrontation. In actuality, most attention at the G20 meeting in the West was given over to the question as to whether the U.S. and China could use the occasion to agree on a political compromise, which would undoubtedly benefit the world as a whole. The failure to reach such a compromise could produce detrimental effects for the world economy, as well as raise political tensions and risks of regional, and even global warfare. Therefore, the so-called ‘truce’ reportedly agreed upon by Trump and Xi Jinping were viewed positively at the G20 as constituting an informal agreement to defer American tariffs on Chinese metal exports in exchange for a Chinese commitment to purchase more exports from the United States. It is notable that this stepping back from an economic confrontation required China to make a gesture of acceptance of the American complaints as well as deferring indefinitely American efforts to gain short-term advantages by raising tariffs on goods imported from China. The central drama on the global stage is now how the United States and China will handle their conflicts in the South Asia islands and with regard to trade. The relationship of the West with Russia is of secondary importance. The status of Russia as a major political actor has been significantly restored in the era of Putin’s leadership, but it remains secondary except in certain limited spheres, such as Syria or along its own borders.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Trump and Putin is seen by a broad spectrum of political opinion in the West as one where the challenge being posed is how to stand up to perceptions of renewed threats of Russian expansionism. This is why the Ukrainian incident is viewed as something more serious that the event itself. There is a fear, whether justifies or not, of Russian territorial ambitions that is being relied upon by militarist forces in the West to generate anti-Russian sentiments and expanded defense spending.
Unfortunately, President Putin did not help those seeking more benevolent relations with Russia by his unseemly show of friendship when greeting Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS) at the G20 meetings. These images were caught on camera by journalists, and widely shown here in the United States evoking commentary that interpreted this greeting as a cynical indirect endorsement by Putin of the gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist, Kamal Khashoggi. Trump has been under pressure to react to this murder, and widely criticized for reaffirming close alliance ties between Washington and Riyadh in the aftermath of the murder, but at least in the G20 context he displayed the good sense to keep his distance from MBS at least when cameras were around, and avoided any public or personal display of friendship for this discredited foreign leader.
At this point, the relationship between Putin and Trump are on the American side primarily reflections of political calculations about the effects on the upcoming 2020 presidential elections. Although still two years away, these forthcoming American elections are already shaping the behavior of Trump on such delicate matters as relations with Russia, and the American mood seems now to favor the adoption of a more confrontational approach toward both Russia and China.
- What is Trump’s earlier move to cancel the meeting indicative of?
As I have indicated, Trump’s recent behavior is responsive to growing pressures on his leadership from within the American political system, especially due to his low popularity with the public, the prospect of a damaging report by the Special Counsel investigating Trump’s alleged improper behavior, and the loss of control of Congress due to the outcome of the recent midterm election. He no longer acts as if free to pursue a policy of accommodation with Russia even if this is what he would wish. It is true that when he ran for president in 2016 Trump’s outlook dramatically contrasted with that of Hillary Clinton on the question of relations with Russia. Many Americans then worried about a new Cold War, voted for Trump solely to avoid a rise in tensions with Russia that seems certain to have followed had Clinton been elected. At the same time there remains a strong consensus that is bipartisan in character, and included the Pentagon and CIA, that leans toward a more aggressive approach toward Russia, even more so than toward China. It is in this general atmosphere that it is best to comprehend and interpret Trump’s behavior with regard to Putin and Russia generally. The revelations of Russian interference in American elections further hardens public attitudes in an antagonist direction.
On the other side, it is not clear what Russia seeks to achieve during G20 meetings and in its relationship with the United States at this point, although Moscow clearly seemed earlier to be receptive to the Trump approach, and gave many indications of wanting to restore normal peaceful relations. It also seemed that Putin would have welcomed a positive political atmosphere and encouraged robust economic and cultural interactions between the two countries.
The fault associated with these deteriorating prospects is not only with America. Russia could achieve a more favorable image in the world if it made some constructive initiatives such as the renewal of nuclear disarmament negotiations or the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East or the establishment of a global migration compact. Perhaps, we in the West are not aware of Russian attempts to contribute to a more peaceful and just world order, in which case a greater effort needs to be made to set forth the positive content of Russian foreign policy. As matters now stand, the Russian role is viewed through the prism of bullying the Ukraine and propping up the criminal Assad regime in Syria.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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