Anyone who lived through the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the brief period of detente in the first half of the 1970s, the flare-up of the Cold War again in the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, followed by the period of Perestroika in the second half of the 1980s, after which came the reverberating collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and then, a decade later, the rise of Vladimir Putin to power at the outset of the new millennium, will not have been surprised at how the US-Russian summit in Helsinki on 16 July riveted international attention.
US-Russian relations have been, to a large extent, the prime determinant of international relations since World War II, in which the two countries fought side by side.
Whether the warfare was cold in the North or hot elsewhere, or whether the two sides edged towards or away from the brink of nuclear war, the tensions, ease-ups and assorted crises between them set political temperatures across the planet.
The recent Putin-Trump meeting was no different in this regard, especially given the importance, centrality or vitality of the issues the summit addressed.
Nevertheless, the media and political fanfare and commotion focused on everything else in and around the summit, rather than the issues discussed there.
The Syrian crisis garnered little attention. Likewise, Ukraine and its associated issues. As for nuclear non-proliferation, which is a heading under which comes the subject of Iran, zilch.
It was Putin’s and Trump’s joint press conference that stole the limelight, starting from when Putin showed up an hour late.
The summit was part of a long US presidential tour that began with the NATO summit in Brussels, followed by an official visit to London and then Helsinki to round it out and add a surprise ending.
In the first phase, Trump called NATO into question as he turned up the heat under fellow NATO members for not shouldering their financial responsibilities.
He accused them of having a bent for making the US foot the bill to protect Europe from Russia while purchasing billions of dollars of natural gas to make Russia rich.
In London, Trump did battle with royal protocols and parted with a grenade aimed at Theresa May’s Brexit policy, which he wants to be hard, tough and definitive.
On the whole, throughout the tour, his message was that Europe was now, essentially, the US’s adversary, at least as far as trade is concerned.
At the end of that long road lay Helsinki which, to Trump, was basically about realising one of his electoral pledges.
During his campaign, Trump expressed his admiration for Putin as a strong leader and spoke of his desire to improve relations with Moscow, which he felt would be easy now that Russia was no longer an enemy of the US.
Such an attitude would have ordinarily been enthusiastically welcomed among US and European liberal circles, as long as it would work to reduce international tensions and dispel the spectre of nuclear warfare.
But such a welcome was not forthcoming, because the road to Helsinki passed through NATO in Brussels and Brexit Britain. The fissuring fault lines in the West were the prelude to Trump’s embrace with the East and Putin.
The spectre of Russian meddling in the US presidential elections haunted the road of that European tour from beginning to end.
On the eve of Trump’s trip to Helsinki, US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers for conspiring to rig the US electoral polls.
This was confirmed by CIA Director Dan Coats, whom Trump had appointed to replace Mike Pompeo, moved by Trump to the State Department.
Never before had a US-Russian summit taken place under such a climate. It could not have contrasted more starkly to past climates, when European countries conveyed all possible messages of unity and consensus with Washington in order to bolster the US president in the face of the Russian bear, and when Washington would take pains to conduct an extensive series of consultations with “the allies” so as to be able to speak in the name of the Western alliance and not just that of the US.
In this case, as Trump set off to Helsinki he left behind clouds of doubt and suspicion, many hovering around the question as to whether the US was still the leader of the Free World or, instead, was pursuing its own separate path in dealing with the Russians.
Certainly, Trump left no room for doubt that he had a kind of foreign policy unlike that of any of his predecessors. It has turned allies into adversaries and a former Russian adversary into a party the US can deal with; one that, moreover, no longer has to bear the consequences of the former adversarial relationship alone, since now Washington and Moscow can bear them together.
Leaving aside all the political and media commotion that surrounded Helsinki and the Democratic and Republican outcry in the US, the observer of that event will detect three facets that help define the contours of international relations.
The first is the ideological undertone that accompanied the summit: both Trump and Putin are averse to political liberalism, in general, and see it as too wimpy to steer the world.
The second has to do with power realities in the world. The US, Russia and China are the world’s superpowers. To add Japan and Europe to the list ignores the fact that the former is dependant upon Washington for protection, while the latter consists of 27 countries, divided over many issues.
The third facet has to do with the powers that are going to determine the fates of the Syrian, Ukranian and Iranian questions.
These will be the US and Russia, which will cooperate on Syria, reach a compromise on Ukraine and push Iran towards a new agreement in order to restrain its nuclear ambitions.
In the case of Syria, Iran will be forced to exit the game, even if that means leaving Bashar Al-Assad in the game. In the case of Ukraine, Russia will content itself with Crimea and Ukraine outside of NATO. With respect to Iran, the survival of the regime will be the reward offered to Tehran.
The Helsinki summit, complete with the developments surrounding it before and after, marks a turning point in international relations.
Cold war, detente and competition over spheres of influence have been consigned to the past. Now a series of deals will restore Russia to its former status enabling it to share the global helm with the US (and, perhaps, China in the not so distant future) and steer the course of the world order and chart the movement of the planets as well!
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump and Putin in Helsinki