Why Trump's time in Helsinki reveals weaknesses

Finland is a tiny Scandinavian strip of land that diplomatically punches above its weight. Rich and wealthy, its Helsinki airport handles roughly 18 million travellers; three times its population of less than six million people.

Finland was one of the places where several thrilling events in one week captured public attention in a political configuration featuring a triumvirate of Putin, Trump, and former US President Barack Obama. First, Putin enjoyed hosting the World Cup in Moscow that ended with the 'African Union' in France beating 'Cinderella' Croatia. He then flew to Helsinki, Finland, to meet his American counterpart, Trump.

Second, Trump was in Europe causing diplomatic consternation and picking a few political fights while blaming his predecessor, Obama, for his international challenges. Third, Obama was on an African tour to accomplish two things. In Kenya, he saw Grandmother Sarah and opened a Sauti Kuu Centre in Kogelo. He also evaded expectant crowds, including a Maasai 'warrior' that wanted to offer him cows and goats in exchange for Malia’s hand.

Played host

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While Obama was feeling at home in Kenya and on his way to South Africa to deliver the annual Nelson Mandela lecture, Trump was in Europe, embarrassing hosts, playing golf in Scotland, and flying to Helsinki to meet Putin. It was not the first time that Helsinki had played host to American and Russian presidents. US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev went to Helsinki in July 1975, along with other Western and Eastern Euro countries, to sign a 10 point Accord that seemed to reinforce the principles of Westphalia with a few addition.

The Accord stressed sovereignty, refraining from threatening others, territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, fulfillment of international law, inviolability of frontiers, peaceful settlement of disputes, right of self-determination, and co-operation among states. What captured most attention at the time, however, was Point VII on respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Accord marked one of the high points of East-West co-operation during the Cold War. The case was different in July 2018 when Trump met Putin in Helsinki and there was no celebration.

Trump in Helsinki found himself in trouble within the United States where domestic forces, media and politicians were unhappy with his utterances. John Lewis Gaddis, a leading grand strategy scholar at Yale University, observed that American presidents and policy makers do not have the operating policy freedoms enjoyed by their Soviet/Russian counterparts because they must respond to domestic political interests.

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No American president has demonstrated this Gaddisian truth more than Trump. He suffers problems of his own making that have alienated even his supposed supporters who see in the president a lack of basic decency.

His legitimacy

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He tries to be friendly to Russia’s Putin at the very time that the American establishment worries about Putin’s strong image and Russia’s growing global influence. Having lost the popular vote by 3 million to Hilary Clinton, questions on his legitimacy intensified due to claims that the Russians helped him to win by hacking into the US electoral system.

Trump’s performance at Helsinki made him look weak and unable to match calculating Putin in terms of command of issues. Putin believes that international relations is not personal but that it is like mathematics, a matter of logic in knowing and protecting own interests. In contrast, Trump seems to behave as if everything is personal, whether it is negative language on the Europeans or regular attacks on his predecessor, Obama, who he blamed for the whole saga of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump claimed in Helsinki that it was Obama’s fault. This raised Obama’s ire and he responded in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Obama was entertainingly hard hitting and added to Trump’s troubles. He talked of universal values, condemned the rise of “strong men” politics that disregards institutions and ignores the weak, and tore into Trump’s immigration policies. Strong men politics, he noted, engages in the “pretence of democracy” and is discriminatory rather than inclusive.

It is difficult, Obama asserted, to compromise with people who “keep on lying” and embrace “rejection of objective truth”, like climate change. Obama made Trump in Helsinki look lost, contradicting himself on Putin. Trump’s image misery, however, helped to direct global focus on Finland.

Prof Munene teaches history and international relations at USIU; [email protected]

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