Days after Helsinki, the Russians claim big “agreements” were reached, and Washington is silent.Photograph by Win McNamee / Getty
In the days since the Monday meeting in Helsinki, there’s been an understandable frenzy over President Trump’s post-summit press conference, given that he sided with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, over his own intelligence agencies on the subject of Russia’s 2016 election interference, ranted about his Electoral College victory, blamed the United States for bad relations with Russia, and called the special prosecutor investigating his alleged collusion a “disgrace to our country” as a smirking Putin looked on. But the real scandal of Helsinki may be only just emerging.
On Thursday, Putin gave a public address to Russian diplomats in which he claimed that specific “useful agreements” were reached with Trump in their one-on-one meeting at the summit, a private meeting that Trump himself insisted on. Putin’s announcement came a day after his Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said that Trump had made “important verbal agreements” with Putin on arms control and other matters. The Russians, Antonov said, were ready to get moving on implementing them. The White House, meanwhile, has said nothing about what the two men may have agreed to in private, although Trump tweeted Thursday morning that he and Putin had discussed everything from nuclear proliferation to Syria, Ukraine, and trade, and that he looked forward to a second meeting with the Russian President soon, to follow up. On Thursday afternoon, the White House confirmed that Trump plans to invite Putin to Washington in the fall for another summit.
Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.
America’s Embarrassment–State Department is kept out of the loop of Trump-Putin private discussions in Helsinki
Unlike Putin, Trump did not brief his own diplomats on the Helsinki meeting. The American Secretary of State, national-security adviser, and Ambassador to Moscow, who attended the lunch after Trump and Putin’s private session, have been publicly silent on the substance of the meetings, leaving it to the Russians, for now, to make claims about what was actually said and done behind closed doors between the two Presidents. Even as Putin was publicly talking of “agreements” in Moscow on Thursday, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, gave a radio interview to the conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. The bulk of their conversation concerned a meeting that Pompeo is hosting next week to promote “religious freedom” internationally.
The Secretary of State was neither asked about nor chose to elaborate on what happened in Helsinki, and the only question about Russia concerned whether Pompeo had been alerted, before the Helsinki summit, to the Justice Department indictments of a dozen Russian military-intelligence officers in connection with the 2016 Russian hacking on Trump’s behalf. “I can’t talk about that, Hugh,” Pompeo said.
The information provided to America’s top diplomats, those whose job it is to deal with Russia, was just as sparse and potentially incomplete. The Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Russia, Wess Mitchell, on Tuesday briefed the State Department group that has been pulled together to discuss Russia policy before and after the summit. There was no mention of any agreements. “There is no word on agreements,” a senior U.S. official told me. “There is no information on the U.S. side about any agreements.” So was Putin lying? Was Trump? Was it possible there was a misunderstanding, and that Trump thinks he made no commitments and Putin thinks he did? “It is terribly disturbing,” the senior official said. “The point is that we don’t know.”
A U.S. Ambassador in Europe, who has extensive experience dealing with Russia, told me that he and other State Department officials who would need to know have received no post-summit briefings, or even talking points about what happened, both of which would be standard practice after such an important encounter. “Nothing,” he told me. “We are completely in the dark. Completely.”
At the same time, the fragmentary evidence that has emerged, from the Russian comments and Trump’s various interviews, suggests there is reason for serious concern. In an interview on Fox, Trump questioned America’s commitment to the NATO alliance’s Article 5 mutual-defense provision, disparaging the new NATO member Montenegro as an “aggressive” little country that just might provoke us into “World War Three.” The criticism seemed to parrot Putin’s thinking on NATO and Montenegro—where Russia mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt last year in an effort to block the country’s NATO accession. The exchange left observers justifiably wondering if this was part of the agenda in the private Trump-Putin talks.
Trump has also, in his tweets and other interviews, alluded to substantive discussions with Putin on issues such as Syria, where Trump is already on record as saying he wants to withdraw U.S. troops. If Trump, in fact, struck a secret deal with Putin in Helsinki to pull back U.S. troops from Syria, or otherwise limit the American presence, that would prove deeply controversial among many in his own party.
While Trump’s comments gave cause for concern, another public uproar emerged over Trump’s suggestion that he was taking seriously Putin’s demand to interrogate the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and a number of congressional staffers. McFaul and the staffers were involved in imposing sanctions on corrupt Russian officials after successful lobbying by the U.S.-born businessman Bill Browder, who has emerged as one of Putin’s chief international foes. Was the handing over of a former American Ambassador to Moscow and congressional staffers to Russian officials also discussed—or even agreed to by Trump—in the private session? The White House said it was “considering” Putin’s proposal, while the State Department called demands on McFaul and others “absurd” and a non-starter. Finally, on Thursday afternoon, the White House said Trump “disagrees” with the proposal, which, it nonetheless insisted, had been made by Putin “in sincerity.”
The bewildered White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has a tough job defending her POTUS
I spoke with McFaul a few minutes after the White House statement from the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was released. “This is hardly a defense of us,” McFaul told me, pointing out that neither he nor the other ten current and former U.S. government officials apparently sought by Putin had anything to do with Browder, and yet were somehow accused of being implicated in a spurious Russian criminal case against the businessman. “The disturbing thing is, this is just one part of the private conversation we know about, and think about how cockamamie it was,” McFaul added. “So that’s the one thing we know about the private talks, and it has this incredibly bad consequence for the American interest. So why wouldn’t we assume the rest of the conversation was like that as well?”
We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy. This week’s extraordinary confusion over even the basic details of the Helsinki summit shows that all too clearly. We may not yet know what exactly Trump agreed to with Putin, or even if they agreed to anything at all; perhaps, it will turn out, Putin and his advisers have sprung another clever disinformation trap on Trump, misleading the world about their private meeting because a novice American President gave them an opening to do so. But, even if we don’t know the full extent of what was said and done behind closed doors in Helsinki, here’s what we already do know as a result of the summit: America’s government is divided from its President on Russia; its process for orderly decision-making, or even basic communication, has disintegrated; and its ability to lead an alliance in Europe whose main mission in recent years has been to counter and contain renewed Russian aggression has been seriously called into question.
On Thursday, not long after Putin’s remarks, I spoke with a former senior National Security Council official who has remained in close contact with Trump’s Russia advisers. The official described a bleak scene: the utter lack of process; the failure of the U.S. government to clarify what was even discussed, never mind agreed to, at the meeting; the deep concerns of NATO allies who had spent the previous week believing they had secured Trump’s commitment to their shared agenda of pushing back against Russian aggression. It all seemed almost incomprehensible to anyone with the vaguest sense of how the United States has conducted its foreign policy for generations. “This is no way to run a superpower,” he told me. It’s hard to imagine anyone, Republican or Democrat, who could seriously disagree.
“In Trump’s case, censure would not be a substitute for impeachment but a possible precursor to it. At a minimum, advocating censure would be a movement-building effort that would bring tone and focus to the amorphous “Check Trump” themes that Democratic candidates will use before the midterms. It would embed Helsinki in the campaign and help keep that ghastly episode fresh even after attention shifts elsewhere.”–Jonathan Alter
Sixty-four years ago, the U.S. Senate censured the bullying demagogue Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin for conduct that “tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.” McCarthy lingered in the Senate for another 2 ½ years., but the censure essentially ended his early-1950s “Red Scare” reign of intimidation and character assassination.
Now President Trump, with his craven performance opposite Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, has brought his office into dishonor and disrepute. In doing so, Trump has presented a gift to congressional Democrats who dread campaigning on impeachment for the midterm election in the fall. The promise to censure Trump if Democrats retake the House would likely appeal more to voters than vowing to undo the 2016 election through impeachment.
For all the bipartisan condemnation of what has been called the “Helsinki humiliation,” censure isn’t part of the discussion. It should be.
“Timid Senate Republicans remain too frightened of their constituents to sanction their President”.–Alter
The Senate will not be a fruitful place to look for it. Timid Senate Republicans remain too frightened of their constituents to sanction their president. Under the most common reading of the rules, censure in the Senate would take 60 votes — a high bar unless special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation turns up five-alarm evidence involving the president.
The House, by contrast, requires only a simple majority to approve a motion of censure. If Democrats take that chamber this fall, they could censure Trump as early as January. He would obviously use it to try to rally his base. But even if the vote were largely symbolic, a resolution officially condemning Trump on national security and other grounds would be worth the trouble.
Censure would provide at least some measure of accountability for Trump, and it would be a repudiation-by-proxy of Putin. Along with strengthened sanctions against Russia, censure would send a strong message to the world that the U.S. president’s assault on NATO and capitulation to the Kremlin do not reflect the policy of the full U.S. government.
Last year, a small band of House liberals tried, with little notice, to censure Trump for blaming “both sides” after white supremacists sparked violence in Charlottesville. He deserved censure then, but today’s grounds are even stronger.
Censure, by either the Senate or the House, is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, and it has no legal force. But its rare use — only two dozen or so times in the nation’s history — makes it an especially stinging reprimand. Among presidents, only Andrew Jackson has been censured (for withholding key documents about the Bank of the United States), though his censure was later expunged. In 1998, when President Clinton was embroiled in a sex scandal involving a White House intern, many Senate Democrats favored voting for censure and moving on. But the Republican-controlled House was hellbent on impeaching him, instead. Republicans paid a price for that overreach, as today’s Democrats may well note.
In Trump’s case, censure would not be a substitute for impeachment but a possible precursor to it. At a minimum, advocating censure would be a movement-building effort that would bring tone and focus to the amorphous “Check Trump” themes that Democratic candidates will use before the midterms. It would embed Helsinki in the campaign and help keep that ghastly episode fresh even after attention shifts elsewhere.
Some liberals may insist that impeachment must be part of Democratic campaigns in the fall. But most candidates know that moderate voters in flippable states and districts would prefer to see Mueller’s evidence first. Pushing impeachment now — without rock-solid evidence of the “treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors” necessary to win a two-thirds vote for conviction in the Senate — plays right into Trump’s hands.
Pushing censure doesn’t do that. An official reprimand of the President requires no evidence of collusion — beyond the sickening sight of two heads of state colluding on the world stage. Helsinki might become a useful wedge issue for Democrats. When asked what to do about Trump, they can say they favor censure now on national security grounds and want to wait for Mueller’s findings before considering what to do next. That answer would put Republican opponents on the spot. If GOP candidates oppose censure, they would be essentially saying they think the Helsinki humiliation was no big deal.
As Democrats prepare for possible control of one or both houses of Congress, they must develop their long-atrophied parliamentary muscles. That means planning hearings, investigations and bills to fix a multitude of Trump administration abuses. But they shouldn’t neglect the power of public shame, even for the most shameless man on the planet.
Putin practises tough guy diplomacy with great effect
The United States has enjoyed many advantages over the decades because of its superpower status. As the principal architect of the post-World War II liberal international order, Washington has secured disproportionate security and economic benefits for itself. America’s overwhelming military capabilities have magnified that clout in global affairs. Allies and adversaries alike might grumble at Washington’s preeminence, but they have been prudent enough to avoid direct challenges whenever possible. Even the Soviet Union confined itself (with the notable exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis) to probes in marginal, mostly Third World, arenas.
However, Washington’s dominant position has also led to some foreign policy bad habits. Because U.S. leaders have not had to deal with serious peer competitors in a long time, they appear to have lost the art of skillful, nuanced diplomacy. Even before the arrival of the Trump administration, U.S. policy exhibited a growing arrogance and lack of realism about diplomatic objectives. The upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin affords an opportunity to relearn the requirements of effective diplomacy. If handled poorly, though, it will underscore the adverse consequences of Washington’s rigid approach to world affairs.
Too many American politicians, pundits, and foreign policy operatives seem to believe that when dealing with an adversary, diplomacy should consist of issuing a laundry list of demands, including manifestly unrealistic ones, without offering even a hint of meaningful concessions. Critics of Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un epitomized that attitude. Some of them excoriated the president just for his willingness to accord Kim implicit equal status by approving a bilateral meeting. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi groused that President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo.”
Others grudgingly conceded that the summit theoretically might have been an appropriate move, but argued that Washington should have demanded major substantive and irreversible North Korean steps toward denuclearization in exchange for such a prestigious meeting. In other words, they wanted North Korea’s capitulation on the central issue before Trump even agreed to a summit. Critics were furious that such a capitulation was not at least enshrined in the joint statement emerging from the meeting. And if that hardline stance was not enough, they insisted that Trump should have made North Korea’s human rights record a feature of the negotiations. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asserted that “our wrongful indifference to human rights in the past should not be used as an excuse to justify apologias for dictatorships in our time.”
The lack of realism such positions exhibit is breathtaking. If the hardliners had prevailed, no summit would have taken place. Their demands were multiple poison pills to any feasible negotiations. And the consequences flowing from the course they favored would have been the perpetuation, if not escalation, of alarming tensions on the Korean Peninsula. By spurning their advice, Trump secured a worthwhile change in the dynamics of the U.S.-North Korean relationship. The rapprochement may yet falter, since there are still extremely serious disagreements between the two countries, but the summit was a beneficial reset that has reduced the danger of a catastrophic military confrontation. Because he focused on the achievable, Trump secured a modest, but constructive, gain both for the United States and the East Asian region.
President Donald Trump–Diplomacy via The Art of The Deal
The President has an opportunity for an even more important success in his upcoming summit with Putin. But even more than he did with North Korea, he needs to make major changes in current U.S. policy toward Russia and reject the advice and demands that Russophobic hardliners are pushing. Once again, the president must distinguish between achievable and unachievable goals. And he must be willing to make meaningful concessions to the Russian leader to secure the former.
Some of Washington’s existing demands are manifestly unrealistic. Russia is not going to reverse its annexation of Crimea and return that territory to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s move was at least partly a response to the clumsy and provocative actions that the United States and key European Union powers took to support demonstrators who unseated Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, before the expiration of his term. Moscow was not about to accept that Western power play and watch the region containing Russia’s main naval base come under the control of a manifestly hostile Ukrainian regime. Given the stakes involved, Russia is no more likely to withdraw from Crimea than Israel is likely to return the Golan Heights to Syria or Turkey return occupied northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus. Persisting in an utterly unattainable demand regarding Crimea before U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia will be lifted is pointless.
Inducing the Kremlin to reduce and phase out its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine is more achievable. Indeed, despite the hysterical allegations that appear periodically in the Western press, Russia’s backing of the insurgents has been quite limited and is far less than constituting an “invasion.” Putin shows little stomach for making Ukraine an arena for a full-fledged confrontation with the West.
A similar situation exists with respect to Syria. The Kremlin clearly wishes to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power, and given the extreme Islamist orientation of many of Assad’s opponents, that is not an outrageous position. Nevertheless, Putin has avoided establishing a large-scale Russian military, especially ground force, presence in that country. He apparently wishes to confine Moscow’s role to protecting its naval base at Tartus and assisting Assad’s military efforts with Russian air power. There appears to be an opportunity for Washington to gain assurances from the Kremlin that its involvement in Syria will not escalate and might even recede gradually.
To secure such goals, though, the U.S. would need to offer some appealing concessions to Putin. In exchange for ending Russian support of Ukrainian secessionists and confirming Moscow’s toleration of the anti-Russian regime in Kiev, Trump should be willing to sign an agreement pledging that the United States will neither propose not endorse NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia. NATO’s previous waves of enlargement right up to Russia’s border were a key factor in the deterioration of the West’s relations with Moscow. It is time to end that provocation. In addition to that concession, Trump should pledge that NATO military exercises (war games) in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea will come to an end. In exchange, the United States ought to insist that Russian forces end their provocative deployments in Kaliningrad and along Russia’s frontier with NATO members.
With regard to Syria, Trump should inform Putin that the United States is ceasing its efforts to unseat Assad—a venture that has been a disaster, in any case. To reinforce that pledge, the United States should offer to withdraw all of its forces over the next year. Those moves would tacitly accept Russia as the leading foreign power in terms of influence in Syria. Such a concession is a simple recognition of reality. Syria is barely 600 miles from Russia’s border; it is 6,000 miles from the American homeland. Moscow’s interests are understandably more central than America’s, given that geographic factor alone.
In conducting serious negotiations with Putin, President Trump has an opportunity for a diplomatic (and public relations) success that would exceed his achievement with the Kim summit. To do so, however, he must make a major course correction in how the United States handles delicate and dangerous situations with adversaries. Indeed, he must take an important step in America’s willingness to relearn the techniques of achievable diplomacy.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs.
The former US Secretary of State decries the global rise of authoritarianism in her new book, Fascism: A Warning, and talks about Trump, Putin and the ‘tragedy’ of Brexit
Madeleine Albright: ‘I don’t think fascism is an ideology. I think it is a method.’
“The book is a cry of anguish about the global resurgence of authoritarianism and a lament over the decay of the liberal internationalist politics to which Albright has devoted her career. The work is also an act of homage to her father who wrote books about the perils of tyranny and worried that Americans were so accustomed to liberty – so “very, very free,” he wrote – that they might take democracy for granted. She quotes Primo Levi – “Every age has its own fascism” – and makes her case with observations about the autocrats she has dealt with and brisk histories of past dictators and the horrors that they unleashed. A devil’s portrait gallery includes Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump.”–Andrew Rawnsley
Madeleine Albright has both made and lived a lot of history. When she talks about a resurgence of fascism, she says it as someone who was born into the age of dictators. She was a small girl when her family fled Czechoslovakia after the Nazis consumed the country in 1939. After 10 days in hiding, her parents escaped Prague for Britain and found refuge in Notting Hill Gate, “before it was fancy”, in an apartment which backed on to Portobello Road. Her first memories of life in London are of disorientation. “I didn’t have a clue. My parents were very continental European and I didn’t have siblings early on. I felt isolated.” As Hitler unleashed the blitz, “every night we went down to the cellar where everybody was sleeping.”
She has since been back to the redbrick block in Notting Hill. “I rang the doorbell of the person who lived in the apartment – it was a lot smaller than I remember it. I asked a stupid question: whether the cellar still existed. They said: ‘Of course the cellar exists.’ So they took me down and I had this moment – the green paint was exactly the same. I remember the green paint.”
It was decades later that she discovered that, though she was raised a Catholic, her parentage was Jewish and many of her family had been murdered in the Holocaust, including three grandparents.
From Notting Hill, the family moved out of central London to Walton-on-Thames, where they shared a house “with some other Czechs”. The bombs fell there too, but she enjoyed “every minute” of this part of her childhood. “I went to school and we spent a lot of time in air raid shelters singing A Hundred Green Bottles Hanging on the Wall.” It was less terrifying than it might have been because “my parents had a capacity of making the abnormal seem normal”.
She became “a movie star”. The Red Cross wanted to do a film about a refugee child. “So I was the refugee child, and they gave me a pink rabbit as my pay.”
The wartime British were “very hospitable” – up to a point. “The British would say: ‘We’re so sorry your country has been taken over by a terrible dictator. You’re welcome here. What can we do to help you and when are you going home?”
Her father, the diplomat Josef Korbel, was with the Czech government-in-exile. She recalls him refusing to take shelter from the bombers because he had to finish writing a broadcast for the BBC. After Hitler’s defeat, Korbel took the family back to their homeland in the belief that Czechoslovakia would re-establish itself as a democracy but the country was soon gripped by another form of totalitarianism. After a Soviet-backed coup installed a communist satellite regime in 1948, the family fled again, this time seeking asylum in America and settling in Colorado. “Maddy”, as her classmates called her, was now 11. In America, people welcomed immigrants by saying: “We’re so sorry your country has been taken over by a terrible system. You’re welcome here. What can we do to help you and when will you become a citizen?” She pauses for a beat, then adds: “And that was different about America at that time.”
Albright’s early work as a journalist and a foreign policy scholar drew her into politics. In 1978, she sat on the National Security Council when Jimmy Carter was President and later represented the US as the country’s Ambassador at the United Nations. In 1997, Bill Clinton made her Secretary of State, the highest government office achievable under the US constitution by someone not born in America. She was the first woman to lead US foreign policy.
Over four years as America’s chief diplomat, her life and views were again shaped by encounters with tyranny. She engaged with Kim Jong-il, father of North Korea’s current jailer-in-chief, and found him, she recalls in her new book, cordial, courteous and “pretty normal for someone whose father’s birthday is celebrated every year as the ‘Day of the Sun’.” Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian autocrat, “did not fit the stereotype of a fascist villain” and liked to “act the innocent” even as his security forces attempted the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Hugo Chávez, the late ruler of Venezuela, was “very charismatic” and initially seemed to hold promise for his country when he supplanted “a bunch of tired old men that were very elitist”. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first came to power in Turkey, he was a refreshing change from rule by people “who live in big houses, or occasionally the military”. “These people initially did have some feel for the working class and then power went to their heads – all of them.”
One chapter of her new book is about Vladimir Putin, whom she found to be “so cold as to be almost reptilian” but also a man of considerable, if dark, talents. “He’s very smart. He’s played a weak hand really well. He has a larger agenda which is to separate us from our allies and it begins by separating central and eastern Europe from western Europe.”
With the benefit of hindsight, she accepts that the west was slow to understand that Russians felt utterly humiliated after the cold war and ready to succumb to a nationalist strongman promising to make them great again. She recalls a Russian man complaining: “We used to be a superpower and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.” Putin, she tells me, “has seen himself as the redeemer of that man”.
I wonder whether her first-hand encounters with despots had led her to identify any common personality traits. She laughs: “I’ll tell you – you’ll be surprised when you hear this – they seemed different when I met them.” She cites the example of Viktor Orbán, the self-styled “illiberal democrat” who rules Hungary. She first came to know him in the 1980s during Hungary’s struggle for liberation from communist dictatorship. “He was everybody’s favourite dissident. He was funded by George Soros to go to Oxford. He’s the one who started Fidesz, the youth party. The age limit for the youth party changed as he got older,” she adds with her hallmark waspishness. Orbán’s transformation in office has taken her by surprise. “I didn’t, I don’t think any of us saw this coming.”
Where we might be going is the chilling theme of Fascism: A Warning. The book is a cry of anguish about the global resurgence of authoritarianism and a lament over the decay of the liberal internationalist politics to which Albright has devoted her career. The work is also an act of homage to her father who wrote books about the perils of tyranny and worried that Americans were so accustomed to liberty – so “very, very free,” he wrote – that they might take democracy for granted. She quotes Primo Levi – “Every age has its own fascism” – and makes her case with observations about the autocrats she has dealt with and brisk histories of past dictators and the horrors that they unleashed. A devil’s portrait gallery includes Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump.
She agrees that we ought to be careful not to casually throw around the F-word lest we drain the potency from what should be a powerful term. “I’m not calling Trump a fascist,” she says. Yet she seems to be doing all but that when she puts him in the same company as historical fascists in a book that seeks to sound “an alarm bell” about a fascist revival.
She frequently nudges the reader to make connections between the President of the United States and past dictatorships. She reminds us who first coined the Trumpian phrase “drain the swamp”. It was drenare la palude in the original, Mussolini Italian. She quotes Hitler talking about the secret of his success: “I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them… I…reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realised this and followed me.” Sound familiar?
I suggest to her that the book struggles to offer a satisfactory definition of fascism. “Defining fascism is difficult,” she responds. “First of all, I don’t think fascism is an ideology. I think it is a method, it’s a system.”
It is in his methods that Trump can be compared with, if not precisely likened to, the dictators of the 1930s. Fascists are typically masters of political theatre. They feed on and inflame grievances by setting “the people” against their “enemies”. Fascists tell their supporters that there are simple fixes for complex problems. They present as national saviours and conflate themselves with the state. They seek to subvert, discredit and eliminate liberal institutions. She reminds us that they have often ascended to power through the ballot box and then undermined democracy from within. She is especially fond of a Mussolini quote about “plucking a chicken feather by feather” so that people will not notice the loss of their freedoms until it is too late.
In her book, Trump is one nasty plucker. She labels him “the first anti-democratic president in modern US history”. Those Trumpians who know their history might retort that previous American presidents have been accused of being enemies of democracy, including some who have become the most revered holders of the office. Abraham Lincoln was charged with tyranny by his opponents during the civil war. So was Franklin D Roosevelt when he was implementing the New Deal.
Trump is different, she insists. Look at his attacks on the institutions of liberal society as he Twitter-lashes the judiciary and the media. “Outrageous,” says Albright. “It was Stalin who talked about the press being the enemy of the people.
“I also think Trump does act as though he’s above the law.” He lies without shame, she says. He threatens to jail political competitors. He foments bigotry. He lavishes admiration on autocrats like Putin and by doing so encourages the worldwide drift to authoritarianism. Observe also, she adds, how Trump exploits a crowd.
“He uses rallies in a strange way. We all, most of us that are public people, have somebody interrupting our speeches. There’s always somebody yelling something. And the question is: what do you do about it? Sometimes people are just escorted out or you don’t pay any attention to it. What is fascinating in watching Trump is he loves the people yelling and he uses them so that it looks as though he is having conversations with the people on TV. Trump is, I think he’s actually really smart – evil smart, is what I think.”
The founding fathers endowed the US with a constitution that was forged to protect the country from leaders with tyrannical impulses. America has survived some dreadful presidents. When Trump is gone, does she not think it possible that we will eventually look back on him not as a crypto-dictator, but as an embarrassing spasm?
“In the book I write that there are people who say this is alarmist. It is. That’s the purpose. I’m concerned about complacency about it. This is a very deliberate warning.”
The fear that Trump induces in American liberals is matched by the alarm he arouses among the United States’ traditional allies in the democracies. From Nato to the World Trade Organisation, he threatens to rip up institutions that have ordered the planet over many decades. Albright argues that the doctrine of “America First”, which “conceives of the world as a battlefield in which every country is intent on dominating every other”, encourages a Darwinian competition of tribal nationalisms. During her time as Washington’s chief diplomat, Albright was an unabashed exponent of America as the global beacon of liberty: “the indispensable nation”, as she once called her country. Should Europeans conclude that Trumpian America has become an unreliable ally? Regretfully, she agrees.
“At the moment, it is hard to say to any European that the US is a reliable ally, which makes me furious because I do believe in the importance of American engagement. I always thought we were reliable.”
True, the international architecture established in the late 1940s does require “refurbishing”. Institutions founded seven decades ago “need fixing”. Trump “does have a point” when he complains that Americans pay a lot more to sustain Nato than do the European countries, which rely on the defence pact for their security. The trouble with Trump, though, is “he sees it all as transactional, as if it were a hotel where you keep raising the price and if you want to stay there, you’re going to have to pay. That is not what it’s about.
“There’s no sin about updating these things, but I don’t understand, I truly don’t, what the purpose is to destroy the system. What is the purpose of having destruction as an ideology?”
The Trumpian rampage through the international order has been particularly challenging for Britain, which clings to a conceit that it has a special bond with the United States. Trying to navigate any sort of relationship, never mind a special one, has been a nightmare for Theresa May. This week Trump will land on these shores, where he will be greeted by hot protests on the streets and British officials in a cold sweat. “It’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the Queen since he really doesn’t like women,” remarks Albright. “He’s unbelievable to Angela Merkel.”
The Queen, who has a lifetime of experience dealing with strange and unsavoury characters, will probably handle Trump with her customary glacial implacability. May is the one facing the biggest challenge of Trump management. Can Albright, who teaches international statecraft at Georgetown University, offer the prime minister some guidance?
“I have no idea,” Albright confesses. “I don’t have advice. The device, theoretically, is to tell him how wonderful he is. And to agree with whatever he says – and that’s distasteful. He is unpredictable except when people flatter him and allow him to dominate. I know what it’s like to be in diplomatic discussions with people that you don’t respect. You do begin in some kind of civilised way, but ultimately you have to say what you think.”
Memo to Mrs May: say what you think. It may not get you anywhere with Trump, but at least you will preserve your self-respect.
Albright is a friend to the country which took in her family when she was a young girl, but believes that true friends owe you their candour. She’s clear that Brexit – “an exercise in economic masochism that Britons will long regret” – is a terrible mistake.
“I happen to think it’s a tragedy. I’m not sure how or why it happened. I think some of it was miscalculation. From an American perspective – and this is somewhat selfish and self-centred – the UK has always been our bridge to the continent and very important in all kinds of aspects.” Burning down that bridge is not sensible. “I think it’s unfortunate, I really do.” Much of politics and diplomacy is a story of “unintended consequences of decisions and this is one of the big ones”.
Had Albright had her way, the world would not be riding the wild rollercoaster that is Trump. He would have been sent back to reality TV and Hillary Clinton would be in the White House. She was a vigorous campaigner for her old friend and Albright’s passion got the better of her when she coined the phrase: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That landed her in some trouble during the 2016 campaign. Like many of Hillary’s chums, she is defensive about the campaign’s failure and still struggling to make sense of it. “Hillary did win the popular vote,” she points out.
That she did, but it is scant consolation really.
Germany has had a female leader for more than a decade. Britain is on its second female Prime Minister. A woman has never been President of the United States. Does America have a problem with women in politics?
“Must have,” she replies. “I don’t understand it, frankly. We are very good at being No 1 in many things and yet we are not in this and I don’t know the answer. Because there are certainly very qualified women.
“When my name came up to be Secretary of State,” she recalls, “you would think that I was an alien, you know. People actually said: ‘The Arabs won’t deal with a woman.’”
Her friend Hillary was, in CV terms, one of the most qualified people to run for the White House.
“Ever. No question about it. Right.”
More qualified than Trump or indeed Obama.
“I think she would have been a remarkable president. And I think that it’s very disappointing. It’s something that we all talk about. I don’t know the answer.”
At least part of the explanation for Clinton’s defeat was not to do with gender. It was failing to understand the forces powering her opponent. Clinton notoriously called his supporters “the deplorables”. Albright sounds similarly guilty of seeing the world through an elitist’s prism when she writes in her book: “Globalisation… is not an ideological choice, but a fact of life.”
Opponents retort that globalisation is an ideological choice. It was a very good choice for transnational corporations, for prosperous members of western societies, and for many developing countries which have seen their growth accelerated by free trade and the exchange of technology. Globalisation turned out to be – or has certainly come to be seen as being – a very bad choice for less affluent sections of western societies. Many folk felt dislocated and disadvantaged. Lecturing them that globalisation is just “a fact of life” – so suck it up – was surely one of the incitements for those people who voted for Trump, who chose Brexit and who support the rightwing populists surging across Europe.
“It isn’t just favouring the rich,” she insists. “Most of us are beneficiaries of globalisation, but a lot of people were not prepared for it in terms of their skill-set and we didn’t consider that enough.”
She also concedes that globalisation is “faceless” and “everybody wants to have an identity”.
“But it’s one thing to be patriotic, it’s another if my identity hates your identity and then it’s nationalism and hyper-nationalism. That’s the very dangerous part.”
Albright is a sage woman, but also one taken by mortified surprise by the turn the world has taken. In common with most liberal internationalists, she hadn’t expected the arc of history to bend in this dark direction. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, liberal capitalist democracy was thought to be irreversibly triumphant. Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book entitled The End of History.
History had other ideas. I suggest that it is not good enough for liberal internationalists to simply bewail Trump and his fellow travellers. They need to examine what they got wrong. Maybe there were too many complacent assumptions that the world had become permanently safe for democracy.
“I don’t know whether complacent [is the right word],” she says. “We were all initially enthusiastic, but then we became euphoric.” One conclusion she draws is that “democracy is obviously harder than we think.
“Democracy is not the easiest form of government. It does require attention and participation and carrying out the social contract. And it doesn’t deliver immediately. What we have to learn is how to get democracy to deliver because people want to vote and eat. But it just took me 10 minutes to explain it and that’s the problem.
“The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad. Some of them are really bad. They’re not to do with Trump; it is the evolution of a number of different trends. All the various problems that we have, they can’t be solved by simple slogans. But it’s easier to listen to some simple slogan.”
Albright is far from alone in worrying about the future of liberal democracy. This anxiety is felt more acutely by a woman who was born in the time of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, who reached the peaks of international diplomacy when freedom seemed ascendant and has since observed the unraveling of so much hope. At the end of our conversation, I am left unsure whether she thinks democracy has the resilience to survive this testing time.
“You ask if I’m an optimist or a pessimist,” she responds. “I am an optimist who worries a lot.”
That is probably as sensible a position as any in today’s troubled and troubling world.
•Fascism: A Warning is published by William Collins (£16.99).
Donald Trump hasn’t changed. The many biases and misconceptions that he has about the United States and its place in the world go back as far as 1990, when an interviewer from Playboyasked him about the first thing he would do if he were elected President. “Many things,” Trump replied. “A toughness of attitude would prevail. I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products, and we’d have wonderful allies again.” A President Trump, he went on, “wouldn’t trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing . . . . We’re being laughed at around the world.”
This clearly wasn’t a man who had studied much history, beyond perhaps the volume of Hitler’s speeches that his former wife Ivana once claimed that he kept by his bed. He seemed blissfully unaware of how, after the Second World War, the U.S. used its military and economic power to create an open international economic system in which American multinational companies such as Ford, General Motors, and I.B.M. were guaranteed a growing and prosperous market. And he seemed similarly clueless about the role that multilateral institutions like NATO, the G-7, and the International Monetary Fund played in extending and perpetuating American power.
If Trump’s worldview has any consistency, it is as the ideology of a certain type of parochial, embittered, outer-borough New Yorker, an upscale Archie Bunker. The first great misfortune that befell the U.S. and its allies came in November of 2016, when this small-minded parvenu was elected President. The second came earlier this year, when Trump belatedly realized that he didn’t have to surround himself with wiser and more knowledgeable people who could restrain his impulses. He replaced H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, and Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council, with John Bolton and Larry Kudlow, two wizened conservative talking heads who both know their role, which is to parrot whatever nonsense Trump comes up with on any given day.
On Saturday, Trump once again made a stunning display of his ignorance. Before departing early from the G-7 summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, to fly to Singapore, he issued a preposterous threat to cut off all U.S.-Canadian trade if the Canadians responded to his imposition of tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum goods entering the United States by levying similar duties on some American goods entering Canada. At a press conference that Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, held to close the summit, he was inevitably asked whether his government would go ahead with the retaliatory tariffs despite Trump’s barking. “I have made it very clear to the President that it is not something we relish doing, but it is something that we absolutely will do,” Trudeau said. “Because Canadians, we’re polite, we’re reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around.”
In diplomatese, Trudeau’s statement was polite but firm. (He also said that he stood ready to resolve the trade dispute in consultation with Trump.) But when Trump watched, or got wind of, the press conference on Air Force One as he flew to Singapore, he flipped out and fired up his Twitter account, describing Trudeau as, “Very dishonest & weak,” and adding, “Our Tariffs are in response to his of 270% on dairy!” He also said that he had ordered the U.S. representatives on the ground to not endorse the G-7 communique that they had previously agreed on.
Far from trying to talk Trump around, or clear up the mess that the President had created, Bolton and Kudlow made matters worse. On Saturday afternoon, Bolton tweeted out the most talked-about image from the G-7 meeting, in which a seated Trump is being confronted by Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and Emmanuel Macron, the President of France. “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank. The President made it clear today. No more,” he wrote.
On Sunday, Kudlow said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trudeau “kind of stabbed us in the back,” and added, “It was a betrayal.” Another Trump aide, Peter Navarro, who is a self-styled trade hawk, told Fox News, “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.”
The invocation of Weimaresque rhetoric to describe a trade dispute with America’s closest neighbor was something to behold. But in geopolitical terms, it wasn’t even the most provocative thing that Team Trump did over the weekend. Before, during, and after the G-7 summit, the U.S. President called for Vladimir Putin’s Russia to be allowed to rejoin the group, and sought to downplay the reason that the country got kicked out in the first place—Putin’s decision, in 2014, to invade Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine.
“Something happened a while ago where Russia is no longer in,” Trump said, at a press conference on Saturday. “I think it would be an asset to have Russia back in.” He didn’t dwell on Putin’s aggression further, other than to say that questions about it should be addressed to Barack Obama, who “allowed Russia to take Crimea. I may have a much different attitude.”
Really? At this stage, Trump’s bromance with Putin is so obvious that it has turned into something of a joke. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Prime Minister of Belgium who is now a powerbroker in the European Parliament, tweeted out the viral G-7 photo, and suggested a caption for what Merkel was saying to Trump: “Just tell us what Vladimir has on you. Maybe we can help.” Putin, for his part, said he would welcome a summit meeting with Trump in the Oval Office.
It is possible, of course, that Putin doesn’t have anything on Trump, and that Trump has simply had a lifelong affection for ruthless, authoritarian figures that overwhelms any actual knowledge he may have picked up in the past seventeen months about the benefits of Atlanticism, a liberal trading order, or anything else. Back in that 1990 Playboy interview, in addition to expressing his protectionist beliefs about the economy, he criticized Mikhail Gorbachev for allowing the Soviet Union to break up and praised the leaders of China for putting down the Tiananmen Square demonstrations “with strength.”
This side of Trump—the wannabe strongman—has always been there. But the truly alarming thing is how few restraining influences it now faces. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has maintained a steadfast support for NATO and the Atlantic alliance more generally, appears to be about the only one left. The Vice-President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of the Treasury are all Trump toadies. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, seems to be a busted flush. The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is AWOL. And Fox News, which is Trump’s main source of information, is a Trump echo chamber.
And so we go to Sentosa Island, in Singapore, where the North Korean boy autocrat awaits. After Trump’s behavior in the past few days, the world will be watching nervously.
“Pipes, who liked to call himself a “conservative anarchist,” regularly brought his deep knowledge of history and culture to bear on contemporary events. With his passing, the era of European exiles who shaped American foreign policy is coming to an end.”–Jacob Heilbrunn
Richard Pipes, who died on Thursday, devoted his life to studying Russian history and warning about the Soviet threat. A staunch cold warrior and the Director of Eastern European and Soviet Affairs on the national security council during the Reagan administration from 1981–83, Pipes had fled Nazi-occupied Poland with his parents and arrived in the United States in July 1940.
He spent his entire career at Harvard, where he published many books on Russia and the Soviet Union. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal stated, “Richard Pipes was a thinking man’s realist on the world’s affairs. His habits of mind and argument will be missed.”
Central to Pipes’ mission was his stalwart opposition to totalitarianism, a term that came into bad odor in the 1970s as a new generation of scholars, influenced by the Vietnam War, began to paint the United States, not the Soviet Union, as the aggressor in the cold war. Indeed, revisionist historians, as they were known, sought to exempt Lenin and, by extension, the Bolshevik revolution from responsibility for Stalinism by arguing that the horrors of the 1930s were a quirk of Stalin’s temperament or they tried to play down the horrors of the Stalin era itself.
Pipes would have none of this. He focused squarely on the 1917 revolution as the source of Soviet totalitarianism. In his view, it was not a popular uprising of the masses, as revisionists intent on claiming legitimacy for Soviet communism claimed, but something else altogether—a coup d’etat led by Lenin and his henchmen that squelched any lingering hopes for a Russian transition to democracy. In his study, The Russian Revolution, Pipes stated that the creation of the Cheka meant that the “foundations of the police state thus were laid while Lenin was in charge and on his initiative.” Pipes, who maintained that Russia had a patrimonial tradition that prevented it from embracing democracy, pointed to many links between tsarism and Bolshevism. Hence the titles of two of his books: Russia Under The Old Regime and Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime. Whether Russia really was a uniquely patrimonial state—similar arguments have been made by German historians about Prussia—will remain a matter of dispute. The Soviet dissident and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed that reading Pipes on Russian history was like trying to listen to a wolf play the cello. But if Pipes’ judgments often aroused controversy, his verdicts were backed by deep historical research and learning.
His penchant for controversy also manifested itself in the political realm. In the early 1970s, Pipes began advising Sen. Henry M. Jackson about the arms race with the Soviet Union. Both Jackson and Pipes believed that the policy of détente toward the Soviet Union espoused by Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger was a recipe for defeat. Pipes wanted to go on the offensive against the Soviet Union. Containment wasn’t enough. He argued for rollback—or what is now known as regime change. America needed to rearm, not sign arms-control treaties with the Kremlin.
In 1975, CIA Director George H. W. Bush tapped Pipes to lead a “Team B” of sixteen outside analysts to assess the CIA’s estimates of Soviet military power. One of those analysts was Paul Wolfowitz. The verdict of Team B was withering. The CIA, it said, was grossly underestimating Soviet intentions and capabilities. Ever since, the exercise has been steeped in controversy. Detractors depict it as a kangaroo court and supporters as an early blow against bureaucratic foot-dragging in the battle against tyranny. In the Boston Globe, Sam Tanenhaus observed in a generally sympathetic profile of Pipes that
At times, Team B performed logical somersaults that eerily foreshadowed Bush administration statements on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Just because superweapons like a “non-acoustic anti-submarine system” couldn’t be found, Pipes’s report argued, “that didn’t mean the Soviets couldn’t build one, even if they appeared to lack the technical know-how.”
With the Team B exercise under his belt, Pipes went on to create a furor with an essay in Commentary called “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight And Win A Nuclear War.”
In the early years of the Reagan administration, Pipes helped to formulate its aggressive posture toward the Soviet Union and ensure the demise of detente. He was not among the heavy hitters of the administration such as CIA Director William Casey or Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. But he did form an important part of the cadre of neoconservatives who served in the administration and who shaped the public debate over confronting the Soviet Union. In his book, Survival Is Not Enough—which appeared in 1984—Pipes explained that he did not see the Soviet Union as destined to prevail over the West. He wrote:
the Stalinist system now prevailing in the Soviet Union has outlived its usefulness and…the forces making for change are becoming well-nigh irresistible. The West can promote these forces by a combination of active resistance to Soviet expansion and the denial of economic and other forms of aid.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pipes claimed vindication for the Reagan administration’s views. He also took aim once more at the revisionists, writing in a special issue of the National Interest in 1993 that as Turgenev observed, “the vanguard quickly turns into the rear-guard—all it takes is a change of direction.”
Rest in Peace–Prof. Richard Pipes
Like many members of the first generation of neoconservatives, Pipes did not succumb to the illusion that it was possible for the American to democratize the Middle East after 9/11. Nor was he surprised that Russia reverted to its authoritarian traditions. Pipes, who liked to call himself a “conservative anarchist,” regularly brought his deep knowledge of history and culture to bear on contemporary events. With his passing, the era of European exiles who shaped American foreign policy is coming to an end.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.