Trump, Russia, and Churchill’s Wisdom

Trump, Russia, and Churchill’s Wisdom

Pub­lished 8 March 2017 on the Dai­ly Caller, under the title “A Les­son on Rus­sia for Trump.” Their title, not mine; I do not pre­sume to offer any­one lessons. 

Churchill and Stal­in, Moscow, 1942. (The press photo…it wasn’t all smiles.)

“I can­not fore­cast to you the action of Rus­sia. It is a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enig­ma: but per­haps there is a key. That key is Russ­ian nation­al inter­est.” —Win­ston Churchill, 1939

“If Putin likes Trump, guess what, folks, that’s called an asset, not a lia­bil­i­ty. Now I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t.”     —Don­ald Trump, 2017

Russia National Interests

Trump-Churchill com­par­isons are invid­i­ous and sil­ly. After all, we’re not work­ing with the same raw mate­r­i­al. But their two state­ments are odd­ly con­gru­ent. Churchill’s Russ­ian expe­ri­ence has some­thing to offer the Pres­i­dent as he embarks on his own attempt—fraught as it may be—at a modus operan­di with Mr. Putin.

In the 1930s Churchill had to decide which was the greater threat: Stal­in’s Sovi­et Union, whose tyran­ny was still con­fined to its bor­ders; or the Greater Ger­man Reich, which had by 1939 swal­lowed the Saar­land, the Rhineland, Aus­tria and Czecho­slo­va­kia, and was threat­en­ing Poland.

Churchill’s study of his­to­ry held the answer: Britain had always backed the sec­ond strongest pow­ers on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent: France, of course…and Russia.

“Historic life interests”

Ever the deft rhetori­cian, Churchill was unafraid to crit­i­cize “Sovi­et” eco­nom­ics, but fore­saw the need to appeal to “Russ­ian” nation­al inter­ests in the com­ing con­fronta­tion with Hitler. To para­phrase Churchill, “It can­not be in accor­dance with the inter­est or the safe­ty of Rus­sia,” Churchill said in 1939, “that Ger­many should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should over­run the Balkan States and sub­ju­gate the Slavon­ic peo­ples of South-East­ern Europe. That would be con­trary to the his­toric life-inter­ests of Russia.”

Accord­ing­ly, ear­li­er in 1939, after Prime Min­is­ter Cham­ber­lain had issued a belat­ed guar­an­tee to defend Poland, Churchill cor­nered Ivan Maisky, the Sovi­et ambas­sador. Adopt­ing what today seems almost Trump­ist lan­guage, he asked the ambas­sador for his support:

Look here Mr. Ambas­sador, if we are to make a suc­cess of this new pol­i­cy we require the help of Rus­sia. Now I don’t care for your sys­tem and I nev­er have, but the Poles and the Roma­ni­ans like it even less. Although they might be pre­pared at a pinch to let you in, they would cer­tain­ly want some assur­ances that you would even­tu­al­ly get out.

Maisky liked this blunt approach and con­veyed Churchill’s views to Moscow. Alas Churchill was out of pow­er, and Cham­ber­lain—not with­out reason—regarded Stal­in as a thug. He sent low-lev­el nego­tia­tors to Moscow, to hint at some vague future agree­ment. Hitler sent his for­eign min­is­ter. The resul­tant Nazi-Sovi­et non-aggres­sion pact left Ger­many free to attack Poland, and World War II was on.

“Favourable reference to the Devil”

When the two tyrants fell out and Hitler invad­ed Rus­sia in June 1941, Churchill, now prime min­is­ter, revert­ed to type, promis­ing Moscow all-out sup­port. An aide remind­ed him of the dread­ful things he’d said about com­mu­nists. Churchill growled: “If Hitler invad­ed Hell, I would at least make a favourable ref­er­ence to the Dev­il in the House of Com­mons.” Again he pur­sued the main objec­tive: victory.

Churchill’s Russ­ian expe­ri­ence was stony. In the war, he failed to save the Balka­ns and cen­tral Europe from the onrush­ing Red Army. He did save Greece, and fos­ter a semi-inde­pen­dent Yugoslavia. Giv­en the mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion, it was the best he could do with the pre­vail­ing situation.

Of the Rus­sians, he said in 1946: “There is noth­ing they admire so much as strength, and there is noth­ing for which they have less respect than weak­ness, espe­cial­ly mil­i­tary weak­ness. But he qual­i­fied that in 1951: “I do not hold that we should rearm in order to fight. I hold that we should rearm in order to parley.”

It’s Still National Interest

Churchill nev­er aban­doned his idea of appeal­ing to nation­al inter­ests. After Stalin’s death in 1953, he urged “a meet­ing at the sum­mit,” but Eisen­how­er resist­ed. Rus­sia might have a new dress, the Pres­i­dent declared, but “there was the same whore under­neath it.” Even Ike spoke like Don­ald Trump on occasion.

Well, it can­not be in accor­dance with the inter­est or the safe­ty of Rus­sia that ISIS should plant itself upon the shores of the Mediter­ranean, or that it should over­run Syr­ia and sub­ju­gate the Iraqi peo­ples. That would be con­trary to the his­toric life-inter­ests of Rus­sia. There lies a Churchillian opportunity.

Mr. Trump believes he can work with the Mus­covites. So too did Churchill, when his country’s fate hung in the bal­ance. Churchill met with lit­tle enough suc­cess. But when he did, it was when he dan­gled “nation­al inter­est” in front of the Russians.

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