The US President Donald Trump’s remark on Monday that a G7 summit is no longer on the cards for the month of September leaves many questions unanswered. We do not know the circumstances in which Trump felt that he is “much more inclined to do it (G7 summit) sometime after the election”. Again, Trump was delightfully vague on giving a timeline, which is understandable since a G7 summit now hinges entirely on the outcome of the November election.
Trump didn’t explain, either, why a G7 summit hasn’t materialised in September, which would have given him some boost on the world stage — and given a much-needed fillip to his campaign. This is the second time Trump has been unable to host a G7 summit. In June, the allies, especially Germany, point blank refused — Angela Merkel regretted apparently due to preoccupations related to the pandemic.
If the postponement in September is also due to the European allies’ lukewarm attitude, it becomes a snub to Trump personally. All he’d say was “We haven’t sent out invitations. We’re talking to them.” If Trump falls by the wayside in the November election, the European allies may be even less inclined to troop to Washington before Joe Biden assumes office in January. Trump’s insistence on inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to the G7 summit, which he repeated yesterday, has not gone down well in the European capitals.
In sum, Trump’s inability to hold a G7 summit highlights Europe’s overall disenchantment with him. Trump’s foreign policy legacy during his first term is ending on a dismal note, calling attention to the damage he has inflicted on the transatlantic partnership.
Perhaps, Trump gets one more chance to redeem his foreign policy record on this template if only the US-Russia arms control talks make headway. The first formal bilateral talks between the US and Russia on space security since 2013 took place in Vienna on July 27 alongside the second round of the nuclear arms control working group meetings. The renewal of new START, which is expiring in coming February, is a low-hanging fruit.
Meanwhile, the Vienna talks also touch on the erstwhile Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which is of utmost concern to the European countries. Russia has called for revival of discussions on extending the INF Treaty and Washington has held open the possibility that the negotiations in Vienna would include an INF Treaty extension. One way Trump could overcome the European resistance to inviting Putin to a G7 summit in the US could be by linking it to an event connected with arms control, especially the INF Treaty.
Russia sees arms control as a useful tool to manage its military competition with the US by making it less dangerous and costly. As for European countries, the INF Treaty has been historically the only operational bilateral instrument of nuclear arms control with Russia with focus on Europe’s security and stability. Moreover, the INF Treaty was the cornerstone of European security and its signing in 1987 by the US and the former Soviet Union was a harbinger of political “winds of change” in the East-West relationship.
Equally, Trump also appears to be serious in pursuing forms of cooperation with Russia that would accommodate both countries’ interests. Oil price and terrorism are two such issues; arms control could be another. On arms control, there is also a rare “bipartisan consensus” in the US as regards the renewal of the new START.
Having said that, Trump is unpredictable and the commencement of arms control talks cannot by itself persuade Moscow to lower its guard. Thus, on August 7, Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to the Pentagon announcement of July 29 regarding more US deployments to Poland. A statement in Moscow warned that “such actions escalate tensions in Europe. We have emphasised more than once that attempts to deter us by force and intimidate our country will receive a befitting and timely response.”
On July 29, at a press conference at the Pentagon, Defence Secretary Mark Esper had announced a “plan on rotating forward the lead element of the Army’s newly established V Corps headquarters to Poland, once Warsaw signs a Defense Cooperation Agreement and burden sharing deal, as previously pledged. There are or may be other opportunities as well to move additional forces into Poland and the Baltics.” Interestingly, a week later in an interview with Fox News, Esper added that the deployment to the east to (Poland and the Baltics) aimed to serve as a more effective ‘deterrent’ against Russia. He said moving troops eastward is only logical because “the border has shifted as the alliance has grown.”
On August 7, the official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) reacted strongly by issuing a stern warning to the US that Russia will perceive any ballistic missile launched at its territory as a nuclear attack that warrants a nuclear retaliation. This is in line with the revised Russian military doctrine enunciating the new nuclear deterrent policy allowing “first use”, which envisages the use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or an aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the state.”
Moscow has ruled out Putin’s participation in a G7 summit that excludes China or has any anti-China orientation. Having said that, Trump would be betting that given the Kremlin’s keenness to make progress on arms control — extension of new START, in particular — Putin might be open to a visit to the US to formalise any agreements, once the hurly burly of the November election in America is done. Trump’s remarks yesterday hint at such a possibility when he said Putin is an “important factor”. Moscow has taken due note of it.
Trump’s calculus aims at animating the US-Russia-China triangle with a view to isolating China. Putin, on the other hand, will sequester the Russian-Chinese entente from collateral damage, if any. On August 9, Russian Foreign Ministry issued an unusual statement conveying solidarity with China “on the situation around the Tiktok social media app’s operation in the US”.
Beijing, meanwhile, is nonchalantly reiterating its position that “it is not yet the right timing” for China to join the nuclear disarmament talks in Vienna. And, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were the first world leaders to congratulate Alexander Lukashenko on his re-election as Belarusian president.