Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The hysterical reactions to Donald Trump’s comments in Helsinki show how we are becoming what David Lean’s T.E. Lawrence called the Arabs: “a little people, a silly people.” The difference is, we are the richest, most powerful, freest people in the history of the world, yet like children we are obsessing over words rather than paying attention to meaningful deeds.
Here from the Washington Post is one sample of the thousands of bipartisan complaints about Trump’s comments in Helsinki: “Trump was just compliant and submissive, nearly fawning over Putin. Without a doubt, Putin is more powerful now than he was before the summit and Trump is weaker.” Notice how the subjective adjectives in sentence one become objective facts in sentence two. In a world where language trumps reality, what you say is what you are, not what you do. This has been the central fallacy of most Trump criticism since he walked down that golden escalator.
Words have consequences, Trump’s critics warn. But they forget to add that words mean something when they are linked to deeds. Here’s an example: “This is my last election . . . After my election I have more flexibility,” especially on “missile defense.” In 2012 Barack Obama was caught asking Dimitri Medvedev to pass this message along to Putin in regard to missile installations planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. True to his word, Obama halted the programs, earning kudos from Medvedev, who called it a “responsible approach,” and Putin, who called it “correct and brave.”
And how was this appeasement of a geopolitical rival received? Very differently from Trump’s words. Republican John McCain said of Trump that he had “abased himself . . . abjectly before a tyrant,” and warned that “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.” Democrat Nancy Pelosi said of Trump that his “weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically.” But Obama’s deeds that followed his abjectly appeasing words, from McCain earned a mild rebuke of “seriously misguided.” And Pelosi said Obama’s move that weakened our allies and strengthened our rival was “brilliant.”
So, for the bipartisan Trumpophobes, Trump’s words, which will have no material consequences favoring Putin, are abasement before a tyrant and signs of Russian blackmail. But Obama’s actions rated the tepid “seriously misguided,” and a preposterous “brilliant.” Words matter, especially to people who live in a world of words rather than deeds. But there’s a big difference between words linked to action that reflects the words, and transient comments that are unconnected to serious policy change or action, and so will be forgotten by the next news cycle.
Let’s return to The One to see another example of this dynamic. Explaining at the end of his second term why he had done nothing about Russian “interference with our election,” Obama commented, “There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians [into backing off],” he said. “I think it doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well.” He also was reticent to say explicitly that Putin was responsible for the hack of the DNC server. But notice how Obama is definitively rejecting what Trump’s critics are demanding Trump should have done: “thump our chests” and use public rhetorical bravado to influence or change another country’s behavior by scolding its leader before the international press.
Obama also said he would tell Putin “cut it out” because “we can do stuff to you,” a flip threat as toothless as his “red line” warning to Bashar al Assad over his use of chemical weapons. So, Obama eschewed confrontation with Putin, preferring to issue indirect flabby threats on which he never followed through. But he did mean what he said about “flexibility” when he threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus.
Obama’s example also shows the silliness of assuming that foreign leaders change their behavior based on what we say rather than what we do. What do critics think that just because Trump made some intemperate comments, Putin will do that he already hasn’t done,? Try and interfere in the midterm elections? He will do that anyway. Everybody knows sovereign nations, including us, regularly meddle in the elections of their rivals, enemies, and sometimes friends. Indeed, other nations attempted to hack the 2008 and 2012 elections, but since the right candidate won both times, nobody cared.
And we have done so as well, as Obama did when he sent $400,000 to a group opposed to Bibi Netanyahu’s reelection. Loch K. Johnson, an intelligence scholar, told the New York Times that “We’ve been doing this kind of thing [influencing foreign elections] since the CIA was created in 1947. We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners — you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers. We’ve used what the British call ‘King George’s cavalry’: suitcases of cash.” The high dudgeon and snorting indignation of critics from both sides of the aisle is a case of protesting too much. Nor does it matter whether our motives are purer than our adversaries’, as they mostly are. The point is there is no universally accepted code forbidding countries from interfering in other nations’ elections, so we shouldn’t act like Russia pulled off some infamous cyber Pearl Harbor. We should have seen it coming.
Anything Trump could have said that would have pleased his critics, then, would not have materially changed Putin’s behavior absent some serious action like increasing sanctions, any more than Obama’s schoolmarmish “cut it out” order to Putin did. Any threat is always met with an “Or what?” If we’re serious about the security of our elections and political parties, we need to have an answer to that challenge prepared in advance to back up any scolding we deliver. Maybe if Obama had actually done something with the intelligence about Russia’s actions, Putin might have taken him seriously and backed off. But Obama was certain Hillary would win, leaving Russian “interference” a mere footnote, if that, to the 2016 election. As for Putin, he knew from experience that Obama was all talk––unless he was appeasing our enemies. The comments were bad for Trump because of political, not national security or national interest reasons. He should know by now that he can’t throw such chum to the media sharks.
This whole hair-on-fire reaction to Trump is political theater and moral preening. Only partisan advantage or Trump-hatred can explain such an inflation of Trump’s rhetoric into an existential threat to America’s democracy; or thinking that Putin’s acting in what he and his citizens––63% of whom approve of him––see as his country’s national interests, is a threat to civilization; or branding requests for NATO members to live up to their treaty obligations as a danger to an alliance of which the U.S. pays the lion’s share, and which without the U.S. would dry up and blow away. After all, Trump hasn’t made NATO vulnerable to Putin. NATO has, by spending a pittance on their militaries and assuming America’s taxpayers will make up the rest.
Of course, Putin is a bad actor worthy of condemnation. But for us, what counts is how does he materially damage our interests. “Interfering with our election” and other cyber mischief should be taken seriously. We should be diligent at guarding against it, and make sure there’s a cost beyond histrionic bluster that amounts to America’s dogs barking while Putin’s caravan moves on. And we have even more dangerous rivals than Putin, about whom many obsess more than the others put together. China, which FBI director Christopher Wray recently called our country’s “most significant” threat, in particular deserves much more attention than Putin. China wages economic warfare on us, conducts cyberwars against us much more efficiently than does Putin, encroaches on our western Pacific sphere of influence, threatens our allies in that region, and is rapidly building a world-class military. But no one cares about Trump talking too nice to China.
Finally, Trump’s critics seem to forget that our presidents have been cordial with history’s greatest mass murderers. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t hold his nose while he rescued Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. He seemed to like Stalin. Consider this comment to his former ambassador to Russia, William Bullitt: “I think if I give [Stalin] everything that I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world of democracy and peace.” Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon went to China to improve relations with history’s worst mass-murderer, Mao Zedong. I don’t recall that they scolded Mao publicly for his brutal crimes, which far eclipse Putin’s. Great powers have to deal with other powers, especially nuclear-armed ones, no matter how evil they are. Part of that process involves a lot of insincere politeness and nose-holding displays of manners.
And if that outreach is backed up by a credible threat of punishment, especially force, then it can be effective in reaching agreements even with totalitarian regimes. Ronald Reagan escorted the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history not just by calling out the “evil empire,” or making pleasant small talk during negotiations, but by embarking on a rearmament and weapons development program that Gorbachev and his supporters knew the Soviet Union could not match or counter.
Little silly peoples of the world can afford to obsess over words and style, and ignore deeds and substance. Great powers have to back their words up with action. The best leaders, like Churchill and Reagan, know how to meld diplomacy, diplomatic outreach, tough talk, and tougher deeds in a way that serves their countries’ interests and security. Trump’s not there yet, as his misspeaking in Helsinki showed.
But his actions so far regarding Russia––giving advanced weapons to Ukraine, increasing sanctions, expelling diplomats, and killing 200 Russian mercenaries in Syria–– have been much more consequential, and much better for our interests and security, than were Obama’s empty threats, groveling words, and appeasing deeds that never drew the hysterical condemnations that Trump has endured for his words.