I was talking to a co-worker today about Donald J. Trump, billionaire president-elect (he owns a mansion and a yacht) and she said something very interesting that I hadn’t considered.
She suggested that all of this “luv” Trump has been showing for Vladimir Putin isn’t real. Or rather, it isn’t what it seems to be. There’s no bromance going on here.
Rather, what we are seeing is something akin to the admiration Hitler and Stalin allegedly had for each other, and the cooperation Nazi Germany (and before then, the Weimar Republic) and the Soviet Union engaged in, especially when it came to military cooperation (such as tank training) forbidden to Germany under the Versailles Treaty and the sale of German military and chemical technology to the USSR in exchange for Soviet food and raw materials, especially after the Molotov-Ribbentro Pact of August 1939.
The sides were ostensibly friendly to each other, and once the Germans invaded Poland, the two nations carved up Eastern Europe. It is my understanding that even as German tanks crossed the Soviet frontier in June, 1941, Stalin was still sending food and resource shipments to the Germans, and had been convinced that he, and not Hitler, was going to be the one to abrogate the pact.
So, it may be that the Trump-Putin “bromance” is more akin to this David Low cartoon from late September or early October 1939 than a real effort by two of the five major “Congress Powers” to run the world along the lines envisioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the UN Charter.
This makes sense, given that the best way to understand Trump is to take him seriously without taking him literally. (A mistake the educated chattering classes of the elite, including myself, constantly made.) However, this also means that Trump’s intentions toward Russia are fraught with a great deal more danger than advertised, since far from avoiding confrontation, he’s steeling himself for the moment he thinks he can provoke something and have the absolute advantage.
This also makes sense if I’m right about my analysis of Trump as a gangster, then right now, he and Putin are sizing each other up, and Trump’s words are not so much sincere admiration but coded language that tells Putin, “I know who you are and how you act, and I can play your game too.” (In fact, I’m beginning to think we underestimate Trump’s native intelligence at our peril. He’ll be undone at some point, but Obama’s cool, calm, educated cleverness was as well.) It’s a signal that Trump will be dealing with Putin on Putin’s terms.
If the American foreign policy establishment was in the process of rather stupidly wandering into war with Russia with extremely foolish talk of supporting Ukraine, a no-fly zone over Syria, and maintaining the foolish expansion of NATO all the way to Russia’s borders, well, Trump may well be sneaking and creeping under the cover of darkness toward that same place.
It is no comfort to point out to anyone who might be listening that while you can win a limited with Russia (Crimea, Tsushima), total war is another matter entirely. I once pointed out to a Greek TV crew in New York in the week following 9/11 that no one has successfully conquered Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. Similarly, it’s been a long time, since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth installed a czar of its own in the midst of the Time of Troubles, that someone has conquered Russia.
Napoleon and Hitler sent in magnificent armies to conquer the place, and what came home were ragged remnants that cost both their empires.
And as I was happy to tell anyone who thought a no-fly zone over Syria was easily manageable, Russia is still armed with H-Bombs and the means to lob them over the North Pole. Hundreds of missiles of our own sitting in glaring in North Dakota are no guarantee our army won’t be reduced to rags and our country to ruin by war with Russia.
I’m still not sure it will get that far. Even with all this, I do trust Trump to deal with Russia more than I trusted Clinton and the existing foreign policy establishment, if only because the foreign policy elites — especially those Clinton would likely have surrounded herself with — have grown entirely too sure of themselves and their self-righteouness. Russia is the only nation that can possess anything remotely resembling parity with the United States, if only on the H-Bomb front. It is best not to provoke or confront Moscow needlessly.
A good gangster has a fairly realistic approach to armed conflict (a lot more realistic than a neoconservative or a liberal/humanitarian interventionist). He may look for the first opening to bring out the knives, but the same gangster also knows when a conflict will cost more than it will gain, and when to cut a deal that carves up territory and keeps the peace.
Because, in the end, a good gangster is a good businessman. And in a world where force rules, maintains order and stability, all-out war is bad for business.
And the H-Bomb is definitely bad for business.