Tell Me Who Your Enemy Is

Is America ready for a meaningful conversation about what the interests of the country really are?

Our political self is defined by our enemies and friends. "Tell me who your enemy is and I'll tell you who you are," wrote the German political theorist Carl Schmidt in the 1920s. This was true then and this is true today.

The Trump-Putin press conference leaves a peculiar feeling. It seemed as if the presidents of the two countries, whose relations had been balancing on the verge of a military clash, tried to support each other creating a united front against a single enemy.

This impression becomes even stronger when we observe who this enemy is. It is not China, not Iran or even North Korea. It seems that the main efforts of the presidents were to stand against criticism from the US and its allies.

This is the most startling conclusion from the Helsinki summit.

The main accusation against the US President is clearly absurd. Donald Trump did not surrender the interests of his country and the meeting in Helsinki does not resemble Yalta or Reykjavik: in the foreseeable future, relations between Russia and the United States will not reach anywhere near a level of “normality”. It is not going to happen while Trump is in office, most likely not while Putin is in office and, perhaps, not even while the current generation of the political establishment in both countries hold their positions. The Cold War continues.

Let's try to ignore the media noise and take a closer look at what the two presidents actually agreed upon. Strictly speaking, they did not agree on anything.

Trump did not say anything about lifting anti-Russian sanctions. Although in the short term the sanctions had a limited impact on the Russian economy, their long-term effect may be very painful. The ban on the supply of oil and gas technologies and equipment will have hard impact on the Russian economy. Restrictions on foreign financing are also very damaging. In the long term, these measures can have a significant impact on Russia. Donald Trump did not make any statements indicating at least a distant prospect of softening the sanctions.

Nor did the US President make any announcements about recognising Crimea as Russian territory. Those who feared such a development can breathe out. At most, we can expect a policy similar to the one that the US followed regarding Soviet control of the Baltic States: officially they were not recognised as territory of the Soviet Union but the US did not take any practical steps regarding this.

The issue of Ukraine was probably not discussed. This is evident from the composition of the American delegation. This, apparently, is not only because Donald Trump never showed any interest in this country but because there is no one in Ukraine to rely on: apparently there is no popular leader who could unite the country.

It is likely that they devoted some time to the situation in Syria. Although the details are not known there are things that are generally accepted by the expert community. Namely, Russia acts as a channel of communication between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel on the one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. It is difficult to imagine how removing the opportunity to convey its position to Syria and Iran would play into the hands of the US and its allies.

No public statements were made regarding the Iranian nuclear deal. This probably means that the presidents of the United States and Russia have not reached any agreement or, more likely, did not even touch upon this issue. The positions of the parties are known and are unlikely to change in the near future. Yet, it would be unwise for the US President to refuse Moscow's participation: his means of communication with the Islamic Republic are too few.

As for North Korea, here the positions are more or less the same: Russia does not want escalation on its borders.

The only thing the parties managed to agree on is to continue talking. In practical terms, this will likely lead to regular meetings at the level of foreign ministers and, probably, a discussion forum consisting of experts from the both countries. This in no way is the surrender of American interests, nor is it the end of the Cold War.

The question, therefore, arises: do the American media reflect the position of the voters? We will find out very soon. This will be seen from the polls and, most importantly, the results of midterm elections to the US Congress in early November.

Yet, already we have reasons to question the claim the US channels and newspapers seem to be making: that they reflect the position of American society.

Donald Trump's approval rating is growing. Moreover, his efforts to build relations with Russia find support among his traditional critics.

The most negative attitude towards Trump is demonstrated by young voters, men and women under 30 years old. It was they who provided the main support for Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton, and among them, as polls show, Trump's support is minimal.

However, this is exactly the part of the American society that believes in constructive relations with Russia. These people did not live in the days of the Cold War and do not want it. In particular, this is indicated by the fact that the popularity of Donald Trump after negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has grown.

If the US President manages to win over a part of the young electorate without losing his traditional supporters, he will be able to defeat the internal opposition.

Strangely enough, for this to happen it is the US President - and not the mass media - who is interested in meaningful dialogue with the American public about what the interests of the country are and what the real US foreign policy really is.

Are the Americans capable of such a dialogue?

This is a rather unusual development and we will learn something very interesting about American society.

Published: July 18, 2018