In the end, Donald Trump’s post-summit press conference with Vladimir Putin produced fewer surprises than many feared. In contrast to the US president’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there was no announcement to blindside regional allies such as a suspension of military exercises. Like the first part of Trump’s trip to Europe, however, the outcome of the Helsinki meeting will outrage his critics, play well with his domestic political base and unsettle European nations. Indeed, that may well have been its purpose.
For the Russian leader, the meeting, like the just-concluded World Cup, was a success. Trump’s failure to condemn Russia’s 2016 election meddling – essentially siding with Moscow against his own intelligence agencies – and his description of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe as a “disaster” is a win for Putin. And while the US indictment of a dozen Russian intelligence officers two days before the meeting clearly infuriated the US president, it didn’t deter him from treating Russia and Putin as an equal negotiating partner.
Trump, presumably, sees the fact he faced down his own critics, grabbed the agenda and dominated European news during last week’s NATO summit and UK visit as a clear political victory.
The US president revels in negotiating with tough, autocratic foreign leaders, with whom he appears to identify more than most of his democratically-elected counterparts. Both Moscow and Pyongyang probably now have similar visions of how their relations with the US administration might develop – a series of high-profile periodic meetings in which little is given up or gained, but in which dialogue continues.
Other Western leaders, however, are less certain where to go.
The truth may well be, of course, that Trump doesn’t care what non-Americans think of him. Much of the theatre of the early part of his trip – particularly at the NATO summit in Brussels – appeared designed to play to his base. Trump made noise, hit the key arguments he wanted, particularly on European defence spending. Then he declared success and claimed that his opponents had climbed down.
Judging by comments by French President Emmanuel Macron and others, the reality may be more complex. During the NATO summit, there does not appear to have been a Trump-brokered agreement to significantly hike European defence spending. If European states do choose such a step, it will be as much for their own reasons – frustration with America and more specifically, fear that Washington will remain chronically unreliable and unpredictable – as anything else.
Most European leaders have little enthusiasm for the US president, and know their own political bases relish it when they oppose him. Those leaders who believe they need the United States most – such as British Prime Minister Theresa May – are developing their own tactics for managing him. May all but ignored Trump’s blisteringly undiplomatic interview with a British tabloid newspaper last week, in which he savaged her Brexit approach. Instead, in her keynote speech to him the following day, she listed British firms investing in key states Trump won in 2016, perhaps learning from Japan’s Shinzo Abe and other leaders who have discovered that praising Trump’s electoral victory can sometimes be the route to his heart.
In that sense, at least, the world has adapted to Trump and he to it. I wrote earlier this year that, for better or worse, the US president appeared to have increasingly learned how to use the levers of power his office has provided in Washington, despite the opposition of huge swathes of the political, diplomatic and wider D.C. establishment – not to mention a polarised electorate. He is now learning to do the same in the outside world, much to the distaste of those who previously advised on more conventional international protocol.
The growing European worry, however, remains that Trump’s style is more trend than blip. Trump’s approach may not be a temporary aberration, but the vanguard of a new generation of populists who care little for truth and much for political spectacle – and an increasingly assertive Russia that backs them.