Trump’s ‘America First’ vs. McCain’s ‘America Last’
Russian sanctions could damage US and play havoc with European relations
Not the supposed protectionist Donald Trump, but the “free trade” wing of the Republican Party has taken the United States into a trade war that it can only lose. New sanctions against Russia passed by the House and Senate last week force Europe into a de facto alliance with Russia against the United States, and by extension with China as well. It is the dumbest and most self-destructive act of economic self-harm since the United States de-linked the dollar from gold on August 15, 1971, and it will have devastating consequences. The charade in the House and Senate may embarrass Trump, but it also poses a threat to European energy supplies as well as an extraterritorial intrusion into European governance. Berlin, Paris and Rome will conspire with Moscow to circumvent the sanctions while attacking the United States at the World Trade Organization and other international fora.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), and their counterparts in the House of Representatives allowed their indignance against a sometimes provocative president to overwhelm their sense of self-preservation. The sanctions will hurt Russia, but not nearly as much as they will hurt the United States over the long term. The White House envisioned sanctions as a bargaining chip, to be used to persuade Moscow to behave in the Ukraine and to limit the ambitions of its Iranian ally of convenience. In their present form, however, the president will have no authority to remove sanctions imposed by Congress. That turns a feint into a threat. Wars have been started over less.
The Democrats along with the McCain Republicans, it will be remembered, accused Trump of undermining the Atlantic Alliance, of isolating the United States, and of handing a diplomatic victory to Russia. Not Trump, but his detractors have given Moscow a degree of leverage over Western Europe to which it has not aspired since the height of the Cold War in 1983, when Soviet premier Yuri Andropov considered a pre-emptive Russian attack in response to Western plans to deploy medium-range missiles in Germany.
Supposedly it was Trump who ignored the exigencies of international relations in favor of domestic political theater. Yet it is the Establishment wing of the Republican Party and its Democratic allies who combined to embarrass the president, without a moment’s consideration of the consequences of their actions. Among Washington’s elite, Trump Derangement Syndrome has nothing to do with ideology. It is about jobs and patronage. This is not hypocrisy. It is chutzpah.
Trump humiliated the Democrats and the Establishment rump of the Republican Party last November. The losers now face the prospect of permanent exile from political life. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement July 25, historian Edward Luttwak predicted a Trump dynasty lasting sixteen years, in which Ivanka Trump Kushner would succeed her father. “No wonder that leading Democrats and non-Trumpers continue to act hysterically even eight months after the election. President Trump’s plan threatens to exclude them all from office until long past their retirement age,” Luttwak wrote. The hopes of high office of the defeated Establishment can be realized only by stifling the Trump administration in its cradle.
That is the motivation behind the Black Legend of Russian collusion that continues to occupy the waking hours of the American media while putting most Americans to sleep. As Sen. McCain said after the Senate vote July 27, the sanctions “respond to Russia’s attack on American democracy…. We will not tolerate attacks on our democracy. That’s what this bill is all about. We must take our own side in this fight, not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans.”
The notion that Russian machinations explain Trump’s electoral victory is fanciful, although Russia’s intelligence services no doubt sought targets of opportunity in the American electoral scramble. McCain’s outrage over the violation of America’s political virginity, though, rings rather hollow. Some of his friends, for example National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, publicly advocate regime change in Moscow, a topic that has been a matter of on-and-off public debate in Washington for years. A 2016 Defense Intelligence Agency document reported that Russia believes that the United States favors regime change. The US supported the 2014 Maidan coup in Ukraine, which threatened Russia’s access to its Crimean warm-water port. America’s capacity to influence political events in and around Russia is vastly greater than Russia’s.
After the fall of Communism, the dominant strain of American thinking held that the march of liberal democracy was unstoppable, and that it would transform the Muslim world as well as Moscow. I played a bit part in this project; in 1992, then Ambassador to Moscow Robert Strauss arranged for me to advise President Boris Yeltsin’s finance minister, Yegor Gaidar. Strauss did so at the behest of private equity investor Theodore Forstmann, who had funded a proposed study of the Russian economy. As it turned out I had little advice to give to the Yeltsin government, which was acting as a family office for various Russian oligarchs who divided up the Russian economy. The free-for-all of theft left the economy in ruins. One needed a large shopping bag full of currency to do ordinary shopping. A few hundred meters from the Kremlin, old people sold used clothing to buy food, and World War II veterans wore their medals to beg in the streets. No-one who had first-hand experience with Russia’s brief experience with democracy was surprised at Vladimir Putin’s subsequent popularity. The oligarchs continued to steal, but in a measured and organized fashion that allows ordinary life to proceed without catastrophic disruption. Putin rules Russia by means I sometimes find abhorrent, but his is a land where people don’t talk of Ivan the Reasonable.
An ideological residue of the utopian attitudes of the 1990s colors the Republican Establishment’s attitude towards Trump, but it does not really inform them. This is not about the US elections, or Putin’s nastiness, or freedom and democracy. It’s about privilege and the pecking order in the Washington swamp. McCain and Schumer want to destroy Trump because a successful Trump administration would destroy them, and destroy the reputation of an entire generation of diplomats, intelligence officers, academics and military officers who achieved rank by promoting the export of democracy, nation building, counterinsurgency, and so forth.
The trouble is that the Schumer-McCain combination has taken aim at Russia but inflicted collateral damage on the Europeans. The sanctions legislation in its present form allows the United States to impose heavy fines on European companies involved in energy infrastructure with Russia, and threatens several major projects now in progress, including the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline, the Baltic Liquefied Natural Gas Project, and the Russia-Turkey Blue Stream pipeline, among others. EC Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned July 27, “The US bill could have unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU’s energy security interests. If our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days. ‘America First’ cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.”
The Trump administration has annoyed America’s trading partners previously by complaining about the exchange rate of the euro and about Germany’s trade surplus with the US. But those were cosmetic issues compared to sanctions which the Europeans see as a threat to essential economic interests. The French and German foreign ministries denounced the sanctions as a “violation of international law” and national governments as well as the European Commission are preparing as yet unspecified countermeasures.
Europeans suspect that the US wants to sabotage Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe and replace them with LNG exports from the United States. Neither the Trump administration nor its opponents in Congress entertain such a Machiavellian agenda. On the contrary, the Trump administration initially supported sanctions against Russia as a bargaining chip, to be played to extract concessions from Moscow over the Ukraine, Iran and other matters of contention. The House and Senate bills in their present form effectively tie the president’s hands, turning what was a bargaining chip into a declaration of trade war. This would not be the first war to begin when what was intended as a feint was interpreted after the fact as a threat.
Not Trump, but his domestic opponents have set in motion an unprecedented disturbance in Atlantic relations, and effectively put Berlin, Paris and Rome in the same camp with Moscow in opposing American policy. European governments are already consulting with Moscow about mechanisms to get around the sanctions. Russia has responded by expelling a large number of diplomats from the embassy in Moscow, but that is merely a symbolic gesture. There are more disagreeable measures that Moscow might take, such as providing advanced weapons to Iran, giving close air support to Iranian-controlled militias in Syria, and increasing military cooperation with China. Russia and China, as I have reported, already back Iran’s international brigades of Shi’ites as a counter-toxin to Sunni jihadists shaken loose by America’s blunders in Iraq.
America won the Cold War by driving a wedge between Russia and China, and by persuading a frightened Western Europe to point medium-range missiles at the Russian heartland. Russia sought to compensate for its economic inefficiency by turning Europe into an economic colony, and the most dangerous operations of the Cold War were undertaken to prevent this. Now, for narrow political reasons, Trump’s enemies propose to undo the whole structure of relationships that won the Cold War and drive Europe into the arms of the Russians and Chinese. I do not believe for a moment that McCain and Schumer have a clue about this – they are like the “sleepwalkers” in Christopher Clark’s brilliant history of the outbreak of the First World War – but if I were a Russian operative, I would try to invent someone like John McCain, if McCain did not already exist.