Even the most cautious headline – ‘previously undisclosed meeting’ – describing the informal conversation between the American and Russian leaders during the dinner for the G20 summiteers and their spouses in early July suggests that it was in some way extraordinary. Headlines describing it as ‘secret’ or ‘private’ hint at this more strongly. The first point to be made about this rumpus is that Trump and Putin do not appear to have sneaked away from the dinner to another room but to have held their conversation at the dinner table in full view of the other guests. To this extent, therefore, it was hardly a secret meeting and bilateral encounters of this sort are, in any case, a common and valuable feature of such multilateral summitry. The second point is that the term ‘meeting’ itself usually implies an encounter that is arranged beforehand and is in some degree detached – in venue and format – from its immediate surroundings. While allowing for the fact that it might well have been pre-arranged, the second Trump-Putin encounter in Hamburg was, therefore, a ‘meeting’ only in the loosest sense of the term. I conclude from this that sensationalist descriptions of it play into the Trump narrative of the ‘fake news’ produced by his enemies in the mainstream media. Having said this, the Trump-Putin conversation has stimulated righteous criticism in the United States and on the part of its friends because what was said was (apparently) out of earshot of the other guests and to that extent was secret; because the White House only acknowledged it after the news was leaked; and above all – the diplomat’s nightmare – because the only interpreter employed was a Russian and there is no American record of what was said. (The best account of this affair in today’s press is that in the Washington Post.). Donald Trump is not, of course, the only arrogant amateur who thinks he can wing it. The UK has its own in its leader in the Brexit negotiations, David Davis, Secretary of State for Jumping off Cliffs without a Parachute, not to mention Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Jumping off Foreign and Commonwealth Cliffs without a Parachute, and Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade in Invisible Parachutes.
This is the title of the latest of Brian Barder’s blogs, which are always indispensable reading for those who – like me – still clutch at the hope that the Brexit madness will pass. This is also a good day to read it because 13 July 2017 is the date on which the strategically demented, tactically clueless and now authority-lite Conservative government in Britain is launching in the once-great ‘Mother of Parliaments’ the ‘Gross – sorry – Great Repeal Bill’ designed to copy and paste EU legislation into UK domestic law. In addition, try the sparkling columns of John Crace and Jonathan Freedland, among others, in the Guardian, and take comfort from the near-certainty that the Obi-Wan Kenobi figure of Sir Vince Cable will soon be the new leader of the Lib-Dems.
The Trump administration quickly declared its view – almost certainly correct – that the Syrian air force was responsible for the chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria early last week. While emphatically reserving its own position on responsibility pending a ‘full investigation’, the Russian government – the chief backer of President Assad’s Syrian regime – roundly condemned the use of chemical weapons and significantly added that its support for President Assad was ‘not unconditional.’ This statement, issued by President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, clearly suggested that a deft diplomatic response by Washington could exploit this juncture to produce the long-awaited breakthrough in the on-off negotiations for a political settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war. And the prospect of this need not have been diminished – could even have been enhanced – by the subsequent American cruise missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase near Homs, from which the chemical attack is believed to have been launched. It was, after all, only symbolic and the Russians were given advance warning to get their people out of harm’s way – and yet it demonstrated a marked increase in Trump’s willingness to make Syria a high priority.
But what happened next? After a mercifully short and uncharacteristically measured announcement of the cruise missile strike by President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, in which there was no mention of Russia at all, America’s ‘top diplomat’, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, went out of his way to anger the Russians. In a prepared statement, he declared publicly that the atrocity at Khan Sheikhoun was only possible because the Kremlin was either ‘complicit’ with its Syrian client or – by virtue of failing to ensure that it complied fully with the 2013 agreement to dispense with its chemical weapons – ‘simply incompetent’. Either could be true, but since the Trump administration has itself become a by-word for across-the-board incompetence, the latter charge was probably all the more galling for being a spectacular case of the pot calling the kettle black. Evidently stung by these remarks as well as in some measure humiliated by the casual slap administered to its client, Russia’s public reaction was predictable, and we seem now to be back to the conduct of Washington-Moscow relations by the dangerous ‘megaphone diplomacy’ of the early 1980s. Tillerson, who – following a meeting of the G7 today – is scheduled to travel to Moscow in the next day or so to present what is being widely described as an ultimatum to President Putin to fall in with Western views on how to settle the Syrian civil war (get rid of Assad and then hope for the best), has simply made matters more difficult for himself. He moderated his public criticism of Russia only slightly over the weekend.
It is obvious that Russian cooperation will be needed to achieve any Syrian settlement, so why has Tillerson prepared the ground so badly? Why didn’t he just respond to Peskov’s initial statement by saying something like the following, and then shut up? ‘We are already confident in our view that the Assad regime was responsible for this attack and are worried about what it suggests for the strength of the Russian government’s commitment to the 2013 agreement on chemical weapons, and I shall be taking this and other matters up with Mr. Lavrov, whom fortunately I shall be meeting in Moscow next week.’ Among possible reasons for Tillerson’s failure to sugar-coat his response in this sort of way at this crucial moment are the disarray and demoralization of his own department (the State Department), and his reported anxiety to allay suspicions that he is a secret friend of the Kremlin because of close Russian connections forged during his business career. What there would seem to be no doubt about, however, is that he has been speaking in a diplomatically clumsy way because he is a complete diplomatic novice. Let us hope that this does not prove too disastrous in the next few days. At least Tillerson ought to have some valuable items to offer in return for Russia’s cooperation over Syria, among them an easing of sanctions and a return to its seat at the top table of industrialized states, thereby making the G7 once more the G8.
The one good thing to come out of this so far is that British foreign secretary and honorary US deputy-sheriff Boris Johnson has cancelled (or had cancelled by Tillerson) his own long planned and already once-postponed trip to Moscow. Instead, he has gone to the G7 in Italy in order to provide light relief for the serious foreign ministers there assembled while seeking to raise from their ranks a posse against Russia, meanwhile offering entertainment for President Putin with a risible plan for smart sanctions against senior Russian and Syrian military officers should he not submit quietly to diplomatic arrest.
One of the most striking statistics about the great social variations in support for Brexit in the UK has always been that concerning age groups, and this is confirmed once more by the latest YouGov poll. This records that 65 per cent of 18-24 year olds say it was wrong for Britain to vote to leave the European Union, against only 12 per cent who think it was right. By contrast, 62 per cent of over-65s say it was right to leave and only 31 per cent say it was wrong. Once more, Anthony Barnet puts it neatly: ‘Brexit is an old people’s home.’ It is notoriously also an English old people’s home. Scots, save yourselves.
On 29 March, Black Wednesday, the Tory government in Britain is triggering Article 50 (aka ‘A50’) to commence BREXIT, thereby starting a diplomatic procedure that threatens to unravel the institutions that have played such an important role in preserving stability in Europe since the Second World War. This is the handiwork of a few opportunists in its ranks (chiefly Theresa May and Boris Johnson), a number of mendacious and generally unscrupulous newspapers led by the Daily Mail, and a clique of extreme right-wing, anti-EU Tory fanatics basking in the glory of their massive 37 per cent majority of ‘the people’ in last June’s referendum (hang on – isn’t there something wrong there?). It is only a small consolation that the triggering of A50 briefly shared headlines on the BBC News this morning with the reminder that Britain’s road network is in a parlous state, with potholes everywhere (I have hit them on motorways as well as minor roads), and ‘the A50’ is also the name of a road in the UK. I don’t believe in omens, but at least those in favour of remaining in the EU have been gifted a very serviceable metaphor.