Lame Duck No More: Soloviev Weighs in on Trump's Struggle Against the American Deep State
Evening with Vladimir Solovyov
— The G7 summit ended with a scandal: Trump took off before it was over and ordered his representative not to approve the final communique. The Canadian Prime Minister came out with a venomous remark about the trade war and got a harsh response via Twitter. The US Congress is working on new mechanisms of restricting the president's powers. That means any powers: from imposing new customs duties to inviting Russia back to the G8. In order to try to wrap our heads around this American puzzle, we need an outstanding expert such as the President of the Center of National Interests, Dimitri Simes.
Dimitri, it feels like Russia's got no prophet. The world was optimistic about Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump finally meeting. However, it was sharply criticized in the US. The Democrats claim Trump finds it easier to associate with Dictator Kim than with the like-minded democracies of the G7.
Dimitri Simes, President of the Center of National Interests (US): Well, you know that the leader of the world's greatest democracy has recently visited the US. I'm talking about Indian Prime Minister Modi. And I wouldn't say that he had a hard time talking to President Donald Trump. The problems Trump has with his G7 partners have nothing to do with those countries being democratic. It's about their positions on certain issues that Trump finds unacceptable. It's not about the system of government but the policies of certain countries.
— So what's Trump policy? Is he now friends with everybody? Because not so long ago, the very idea of meeting Kim Jong-un, the man whom America calls «the main freedom strangler in the world,» the man who kept gulags open and violated all possible human rights, seemed inconceivable.
— That's what makes Trump different from the typical figures of the American establishment. The American establishment, which has been developing and, in some sense, degrading after the end of the Cold War, has a certain point of view: If the US president associates with somebody in the global arena, those leaders, those countries deserve that. To be allowed to associate with the US is a gift and a great honor. If you give somebody such a gift, if you do somebody the honor, and they fail to pay you a fortune and are reluctant about meeting all of your requirements, then it means you are a weakling and a betrayer of American principles.
Trump has a different approach. You know that he used to run a huge business. In business, especially in the real estate business and especially in, say, the casino business, if you want to be successful, you deal not with the people you like and would invite to your wife's birthday party, but with those who actually own property, have money, and can make actual deals. It happened so that the North Korean leader, Kim, has something Trump finds really important. I'm talking about their growing nuclear arms potential. Not only can their missiles strike their neighbors but also potentially reach US territory. Trump believes that if he deals with Kim at the working level, if he negotiates with him at the bureaucratic level, then it still makes sense to do so, and the experts will help him sign certain agreements. But if he lures Kim into a bureaucratic swamp, he will never escape it. Trump believed they needed a psychological breakthrough. A psychological impulse only two leaders could provide. Trump also believes that he's got a magnetic personality, that he's charismatic, that he's got a talent for charming his partners, and that his personal contact with Kim will allow them to understand each other better and make it easier for the bureaucracies of both countries to reach certain agreements. That's why he agreed to meet Kim in Singapore. He was happy and enthusiastic about that.
— How did America react? Not the Democrats and the left-leaning media but ordinary Americans. How did they react to the meeting? Was it Trump's victory, did he succeed or not?
— He most definitely succeeded. That's why many politicians in the Democratic Party and the media which support them are trying to cast a shadow on his success. Let's call things by their proper names. They didn't sign any agreements. They didn't make any commitments. There is a declaration of intent that sets a principle: North Korea gives up its nuclear program and disarms while the US provides reliable security guarantees for North Korea, thereby guaranteeing the security of the North Korean regime, and be ready to lift sanctions. Also, perhaps invest, maybe not directly because the US isn't going to invest officially but still, help North Korea quickly become attractive to investors.
That's the declaration of intent. Everybody understands that there's a large gap between signing the declaration and disarming North Korea and attracting billion dollars worth of foreign investment to North Korea. Reducing this gap won't be easy. However, there's a saying «well begun is half done.» They needed something to begin with.
— But are the American promises worth something? The Iranian deal has shown us that they aren't worth much. What firm guarantees of the security of the North Korean borders and regime can America give? I can hardly imagine the very mechanism.
— You're asking the right question, Vladimir. You know, being in Washington, I'm not the one to guess what safety guarantees North Korea might demand. Even though North Korea is a provincial and isolated country, they are perfectly aware of what happened to Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. And I'm sure they know that American presidents come and go and that they can't rely on empty talk. I don't see Pyongyang actually agreeing to destroy their missiles, test sites, and warheads in exchange for empty promises and even temporarily suspended American military exercises on the peninsula and around it. I'm sure that both sides will be busy working out their own concrete programs and their own concrete demands, and negotiating for them. It was wise of you to say that it will be difficult to achieve results.
You said that North Korea will have a hard time getting what it wants. But you must understand that someone in America will definitely say: «How do we know they destroyed everything?» What does it mean to destroy everything? Say, they destroyed all their warheads or missiles. But what missiles: ballistic, strategic, or tactical ones? And if they didn't destroy their tactical missiles, what should our South Korean and Japanese allies do? And what about the North Korean laboratories and research facilities? They can continue developing weapons, allowing North Korea to quickly terminate any agreement. Then, maybe we should establish some international supervision of those facilities? Everybody's sure it will be a long, hard, and often difficult process. But it doesn't mean it's not worth trying, because the alternatives are even worse.
— At the same time, all this coincided with the G7 summit coming to a close. It seems that Trump really does what he promised during his election campaign. He said that he didn't understand the point of the unions. He considers bilateral negotiations to be very important. After all the statements made by Trump and the near threats to leave the G7, it becomes clear that the G7 may not last as long as planned. Did Trump suggest the idea of Russia's return on purpose? Is that delicate political trolling to disrupt the agenda? Does he really think that the G7 is becoming an increasingly pointless structure?
— Vladimir, I'm sure you understand the limitations of the information I have, unlike some members of Russia's opposition, who said that I allegedly hypnotized Trump and am pulling his strings. You know well that my contacts with the White House are very limited. President Trump did not consult with me before his statement that Russia should return to the G8. I learned two things from what I'd heard from more informed people: First, Trump is impressed by the idea of Russia's return to the G8. By the way, not only because of his good attitude towards Russia and President Putin, but because President Trump is impressed by the idea that it would be good to have Putin at the table. Because Europeans and Canadians, and among them there is a former prime minister of Poland and a former prime minister of Luxembourg, who represents various European organizations, they are all urging Trump as a united front of political correctness. I'm sure Trump likes the idea that at this table there would be a person who does not belong to the European Union, this globalist get-together, and who could support Trump on some issues.
But I've never heard from anyone, although I've recently asked around, that Trump's assistants and advisors have been working on this initiative or that he will make such a proposal to bring Russia back to the G8 just before his trip to Canada. From my point of view, frankly speaking, it was an unnecessary provocation. It only got in the way. Instead of focusing on the fact that he advocates for US economic interests, that he defends American industry from foreign penetration, it allowed his critics in Congress and in the media to return to that old question: What ties does President Trump have with President Putin? It's not the discussion he needs at the moment. We know that the President is impulsive and stubborn. He does what he does. Frankly, until now, he hasn't had to actually pay for it.
— But will the G7 last? Because the level of resentment is terrible. Trump is offended, Macron is offended, Merkel is offended, everyone's gotten so emotional.
— From my point of view, as an American foreign policy expert, I hope the G7 continues to exist until it gets replaced by the G8 or something else because it is a convenient format for the US to communicate with the world's largest economies, which are led by leaders who were democratically elected according to Western standards. Frankly speaking, this format is convenient for the US. This exchange of opinions is useful in some ways. Even if it isn't useful, you shouldn't tear it down without something that could replace it. If something has already been built, even if it is not crucially important, the consequences of abandoning and destroying it can be serious enough and can cause much painful and hostile backlash on the US and its ally states. I don't see how this could help Washington.
However, I applaud Trump for having no illusions about the quality of such unions. Let's call things by their proper names. During the Cold War, there was NATO. There were other American military and political alliances that were supposed to resist the global Soviet empire, which had not only military-political but also economic opportunities, not to mention a competing ideology. It was a global clash of nations. This empire no longer exists. Yesterday, you celebrated the 12th of June in Russia. It's the day when the Russian parliament adopted a decision on the sovereignty of Russia, which in many ways tipped off the collapse of the Soviet empire. This empire no longer exists. Russia does not really threaten anyone in Europe either economically or militarily.
And again let's call things by their proper names. This is far from obvious if you use some serious, analytical criteria that the conflict around the governance of southeastern Ukraine should be central to the US. The US spends more than 4% of its GDP on military purposes, while their European allies, who constantly talk about being threatened and in how much danger they're in, rarely spend even 2%. And these allies, such as Germany, England, and France, have very big economic opportunities. But that's not all. European and Canadian duties on US industrial goods are substantially higher than the corresponding US ones. It turns out that the US should subsidize Europe and Canada twice: with regard to their security and their economy.
I'm not a supporter of harsh actions. I'm not a supporter of breaking something. But on the other hand, there is a desire to make some adjustments and talk about it openly in negotiations with partners. I don't see anything reprehensible about that. As you said, that's what Trump promised to his voters. Here is an interesting topic for discussion for the Russians. In Russia, they often say that the US completely dominates Europe, that what Europe does against Russia is done under the dictates of Washington. And look, when actual European interests are at stake, for some reason, these guys know how to bristle and say no. Check the situation with Israel and Palestine. European states, including England, the closest ally of the US, regularly vote against the US in the UN.
The relations between America and Europe are much more complex and controversial than one would imagine. But Europe wants the US to treat them as if they were concordant so that the US commitments in terms of security don't just reflect American interests but as some kind of divine duty, if I might. Obama followed that course. Trump flatly refuses to follow it.
— Well put. But inside the US, everything isn't going as smoothly as one would imagine. The situation in California is unclear. The situation on Capitol Hill is unclear. They want to adopt additional limitations to some of Trump's powers such as accepting Russia into the G8. It's unclear what Mueller's investigation will turn up. It's about time to draw some conclusions. How safe is Trump's current position?
— Vladimir, I'll begin with the G8. Let's be serious. Trump has no chance of accepting Russia into the G8 if Europe, Canada, and Japan refuse. There's no need for Congress to interfere. And if Europe, Canada, and Japan decide to accept Russia into the G8, Congress won't be able to stop Trump from doing that.
There's a political war going on in the US. You've mentioned California, where midterm elections took place. Excuse me, the primary elections, the intra-party elections. They were electing their candidates for the midterm elections in November. And if you look at the candidates, it becomes obvious that they've had a tie with the Democrats having a tiny upper hand. It's not specifically good news for the Democrats because California has always been a Democratic state. In order to take control of Congress, the Democrats must win in all constituencies where Hillary Clinton won during the last elections, which includes the majority of the Californian constituencies. In California, the Republicans are trying to distance themselves from Trump, claiming that they are running on their own. I'll remind you why they are acting like that. What language do 40% of Californian families speak at home, Vladimir?
— I'd say Spanish.
— Obviously. Thank you, Vladimir. The current Californian candidate is a lot like Trump. He has a clear platform based on American patriotism and I would even say nationalism. He's not a hero for the majority of Californians. Still, in some constituencies, the Republicans manage to retain their support. The Republican Party is still strong in California. Right now, nobody dares to predict the results of the midterm elections. Three months ago, the odds were in favor of the Democrats. Today, it seems that the Democrats have a real chance of taking over the chamber. But it's not guaranteed. The Republicans have a real chance to retain their control over the Senate. But it's not guaranteed. The situation has its impact on Trump. I'm sure that neither he nor his advisors want to deal with the Russian issue or impose new sanctions while putting themselves in the line of fire.
Besides, I'd like to remind you, Vladimir, about one important fact that Russians rarely realize. From the point of view of the vast majority of Americans, sanctions have no impact on Russian-American relations. The majority of Americans know that the US frequently imposes new sanctions against Russia. But they haven't heard anything about the painful sanctions imposed by Moscow. Besides, they haven't heard Russia say: «We won't participate in the negotiations on Ukraine, we won't participate in the negotiations on Syria, we won't do this and that if the US doesn't lift the sanctions.» That's why, from a political point of view, there's no reason for Trump to start fighting against the anti-Russian sanctions. The majority of people wouldn't understand that. It would look like a unilateral gift to Putin. It wouldn't give Trump additional political points.
I'm sure that there's an actual link between Russia's actions and America's sanctions against Russia, which isn't always good for American interests, by the way. But what is this link? And what price does America pay for the sanctions against Russia? I believe it's the reason why there's no clear understanding in the US. And that's why Trump is having a hard time fighting Congress on this matter.
— Unfortunately, our show is almost over. As we know, Putin said: «The G8 collapsed when you refused to come to Moscow. You can come now if you want.» Dmitry Peskov said that we're not looking forward to rejoining the G8. I quote Putin's earlier statement about him being more interested in the G20, but we're always ready to meet with President Trump «first thing tomorrow morning,» as our president said. What do you think? How high is the probability of the two presidents meeting in the near future?
— I don't know about the near future, but it must happen in the foreseeable future. I don't know if the President can have such a meeting with Putin like the one he just had with Kim. As we have just said, America has much more opposition to the normalization of the relations with Russia than with Korea despite the fact that Russia is much more powerful than Korea and is capable of inflicting much more damage on the United States than North Korea. Since Obama was in charge, it was widely believed in America that the Russian arsenal is exclusively an arsenal of deterrence. And assuming and admitting the possibility of a conflict in which Russian missiles would strike America, cannot be taken seriously. Therefore, it seems that there is no immediate need to normalize relations with Russia.
On the other hand, I am absolutely sure that, as in Kim's case, it would be very useful for President Trump to be able to speak with Putin so that Putin could explain the Russian perspective and Russia's priorities. It does not have to be a full-scale summit meeting. It should be a meeting where two leaders can really exchange their impressions and seek some common ground when it is possible to achieve some real results, even very limited at first, but real and tangible. It must be done to gradually begin to recreate the atmosphere of mutual trust without which it is very difficult to reach a more serious agreement.
— So they can meet in the fields before the midterm elections in the USA, but it'll be easier for Trump to justify and organize a summit after the results of the midterm elections, if I understand correctly?
— I believe you understand that correctly, but I wouldn't write off the probability of them meeting in the fields. And I'm not just talking occasional chit-chat out in the fields or the hallways. Leaders often have the opportunity to meet during major international events in serious, confidential circumstances. And I hope that such a meeting of Putin and Trump will happen, as you've put it, in the near future.
— Thank you, Dimitri. What a brilliant assessment!