The Handshake Analyzed ‘Round The World

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met yesterday at the G-20 summit.  Presumably they had something important to discuss — but you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage.

gettyimages_810247620-0No, newspapers around the world were more interested in the Trump-Putin handshake, and more specifically which of these leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries got the better of the other during the handshake.  The New York Post even consulted a body language expert who concluded that Trump “won on points” because he used the palm-up approach, which apparently is some kind of domineering power-play technique that allows the handshake to proceed to a vise-like grip.  From the breathless analysis, you’d expect that President Trump carefully considered, but ultimately didn’t use, the “knuckle-roll” approach to really let ol’ Vlad know who was boss.

The reporting on this brief incident make it seem as though these two leaders were behaving very consciously during every instant of the handshake encounter.  Perhaps that is so at the international leader level, but for most people a handshake is a pretty unconscious event.  You meet someone, you reflexively stick out your hand — a tradition that apparently stems from ancient times, where the open hand indicated you weren’t holding a weapon — and give the other person’s paw a basic shake.  It’s only a noteworthy incident if the other person’s hand is weirdly damp, or their handshake is incredibly limp, or they try the bone-crusher approach.  Absent something like that, the handshake moment passes by in a flash without a thought and you get into the substance.

In our modern media, though, substance just isn’t as interesting as trying to read “body language” and speculating about what each twitch and eye movement meant and being distracted about meaningless minutiae.  Next thing you know, the media will be asking Putin what he thought about President Trump’s hand size.

Let’s hope Trump and Putin actually focused on something more meaningful.

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The Coveted Putin Endorsement

Aww, isn’t that sweet?  Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump like each other.  No, really — they really like each other.

The Donald started the courtship first, by extending an olive branch and saying that he would “work with” Putin and “get along” with him.  Then Vlad the Invader upped the ante, stating that Trump was “a bright and talented person without any doubt” and is “an outstanding and talented personality.”  Those Putin plaudits almost made Trumpelstiltskin go squeeee!  He responded by saying:  “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”  You almost expected Trump’s reaction to be followed by a little hand-drawn heart and a smiley face emoticon.

jbrsspbvThe Trump balloon and the leaden Clinton and Bush retread campaigns have made this a weird political year, but Vladimir Putin injecting himself into U.S. presidential politics, and a candidate responding positively to it, just makes the year even weirder.  I’m not sure who “highly respects” Putin — other than Trump, apparently — but it is surely not anyone who knows much about Putin’s record of duplicitousness, invasion, power plays, and support of murderous dictators like Assad on the international front, and his vile and appalling treatment of opponents, journalists, and gays in mother Russia.

I’ve got nothing against trying to “get along” with the leaders of other countries, or at least finding common ground on issues where our interests are aligned.  But Trump’s blushing reaction to Putin’s throwaway compliments is as naive as the Obama Administration’s embarrassing notion that relations with Russia could be changed simply by pushing a “reset” button.  Anyone who actually thought that, as President, Trump would be a tough guy should be under no illusions after the Putin-Trump lovefest.  Trump, like any narcissist, is a pretty easy target — shower him with praise, and he’ll follow you anywhere.  Does anyone really think that the Trumpster would stand up to Putin’s adventurism any more than the Obama Administration has after Putin threw a few more kudos his way?

Somewhere, Vlad the Invader is having a pretty good chuckle right about now.

 

The Ruble’s Ruin

Does anyone remember learning in history class about the economy of the Weimar Republic — the ill-fated government of Germany between World War I and the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party?  It experienced hyperinflation and financial calamity, and we read about Germans needing wheelbarrows of cash to buy even a loaf of bread.

We think that couldn’t happen anymore in the modern world — but it can.  In fact, it is happening right now in Russia, as a Fortune article reports.  Some people think that Russia’s currency, the ruble, is in a state of irretrievable collapse; its value against other currencies, like the dollar, is plummeting and even draconian increases in Russian interest rates might not stem the tide.

The reason is oil.  It’s Russia’s one big marketable commodity and the bedrock of their  economy.  The price of oil has been falling for months, which has made investors nervous about how Russian companies are going to pay off their debts given the lack of incoming cash.  So, the ruble trades lower, and the ability of Russian companies to pay off debts calculated in foreign currencies becomes harder and harder — which makes defaults even more likely.  By one calculation, the amount of rubles Russian companies need to pay off foreign debt obligations has increased by 90% just since the start of November.

How is Vladimir Putin going to deal with this crisis?  You might be tempted to say this disaster couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but let’s resist the impulse to enjoy some schadenfreude.  Putin is adventurous as it is, and you have to wonder whether a destabilizing currency failure is going to make him even more likely to wave his big stick to try to distract from his other problems.  And if Russian companies start defaulting on the more than $670 billion they owe, what is that going to do for the world economy?

Keep an eye out for the wheelbarrows.

Cold War Timewarp

For a child of the ’50s who grew up in the ’60s, reading the news this week is weird and disturbingly familiar.

Stories about Russians testing ICBMs, engaging in adventurous activities in the Crimea, and issuing vague threats make me feel like we’re caught in a timewarp. It’s like it’s the Cold War all over again, and the Russkies are even being directed by one of those inexplicable, menacing leaders that Americans love to hate. Vladimir Putin is like this generation’s Nikita Khrushchev. What’s next? People building fallout shelters and making our kids watch Duck and Cover?

When the Berlin Wall fell more than two decades ago, people confidently predicted “the end of history.” Of course, that’s not what happened. A bilateral world splintered and shifted, and now there are many more threats and many more unpredictable leaders who apparently are bent on doing us harm. I wonder whether this little demonstration of naked Russian aggression will cause President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to revisit their plans to cut defense spending and Cold War weapons programs.

I hope that we don’ return to the unsettling Cold War world, with its doomsday clocks and periodic crises that could blow up into catastrophic confrontation. I hope we also aren’t so smug, however, that we confidently conclude that it just can’t happen. Such conclusions are wishful thinking. There are lots of people out there with lots of territorial ambitions who are willing to run stupid risks to try to achieve them, and we need to recognize that reality and deal with it.

Is The U.S. In A Foreign Policy Cocoon?

The unfolding events in the Ukraine, where Russian military activities in the Crimea have caused the Ukraine to mobilize its forces, obviously are of tremendous concern in their own right. We don’t like to see the rights of sovereign nations impaired, nor do we like to see pro-democracy movements bullied into submission.

The unfolding developments in the Ukraine, however, also give rise to a deeper, yet equally significant concern arising from the fact that the Russian military actions apparently caught the United States, and the western world, completely by surprise. People in the foreign policy world had confidently predicted that Vladimir Putin, flush from the favorable PR about the Sochi Olympic Games, wouldn’t risk the goodwill of the world by taking any kind of military action in the Ukraine, or lacked the will or resources or interest to do so. Of course, those people were wrong.

Is our failure to predict the Russian actions in the Ukraine due to poor intelligence, or of a cocoon-like atmosphere in our foreign policy establishment that doesn’t recognize that other countries and leaders might not see the world as we do? This article in The American Interest argues that it is the latter — and that the cocoon, unless and until punctured, is going to produce more foreign policy crises and setbacks in the future.

I don’t know if the hypothesis of the article is correct or not — but I do think that, when it comes to contingency planning about responses to fast-moving global events, it’s essential to have different viewpoints represented and presented to President Obama. If our current foreign policy apparatus doesn’t include the contrarians who are willing to offer their competing views and the decision-makers who will consider those views, we need to make some changes, pronto. Presidents can only make good decisions if they are given full information and a range of options.

The Putin Piece

Several Webner House readers and friends have asked me what I think of the op-ed piece from Vladimir Putin that was published in the New York Times.  If you haven’t read it, it’s here.  I’ve got several reactions to it.

First, I’m amazed that some people are questioning the decision of the Times to run the piece at all.  As a fan of the First Amendment, I firmly believe that more speech is better than less.  I’m glad the Times ran the piece, because it did what free speech advocates expect — it provoked lots of comment.  The Washington Post, for example, ran a response that annotated and “fact-checked” the Putin piece.  In my view, all of the discussion — about the role of the Russians, what American policy is and should be, and is the piece a pure propaganda effort — is a very good thing.  The more people become aware of competing views, the better.

Second, I think the piece was a carefully crafted bit of propaganda from a foreign leader who is following his own agenda.  So what?  There is still value in being exposed to the views of other actors on the world stage.  I’m also not troubled by the criticism of American policy.  We’re big boys, and we — and our leaders — should be hardened to the rough and tumble of a world where others are pursuing different agendas.  If there are members of the Obama Administration who are feeling bruised by the criticisms of Vladimir Putin, they really need to get over it.

Finally, although I agree with Putin’s notion of America working within the framework of international law and international organizations to resolve the Syrian crisis, I completely disagree with one of his broader points.  He thinks its dangerous that many Americans view our country as exceptional, I think exactly the opposite.  Most of our ancestors came to America precisely because they believed it was exceptional — and it was, and is, exceptional.  It is the place where Old World class, religious, and ethnic divisions are shed and where freedom allows people to advance and prosper no matter what village they come from or what religious faith they follow. The opportunity and freedom found in America is not found in Putin’s Russia or countless other countries.

Sorry, Vlad!  You’re wrong about America.  We are exceptional, and the world is a better place for our exceptionalism.  In the gush of reaction to the Putin piece, I’m hoping that many Americans — including President Obama — focus on that reality as well.