Trump In Helsinki: A Trip Back to the 1970s

Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps | Politics & Government | Commentary | July 30th, 2018

The climate in the United States in 2018 is portrayed as inexplicable and unprecedentedly bad. And, despite a sense of uniqueness, it is full of precedent.

During the early 1970s, the United States was shedding away from the world. The Vietnam War, a protracted invasion by the U.S. war machine, left with the Vietcong victorious. It was one of the United States' most obvious defeats - despite a bombardment with superior technology, 58,220 Americans died in Vietnam and, to this day, Saigon remains Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the Vietnamese revolutionary.

Military withdrawal was not the only mark of defeat. Then President Richard Nixon, in the midst of the 1972 election that led to the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency, convened with the Soviet Union in the Moscow Summit of 1972, meeting with General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. The meeting came after meeting in China with Chairman Mao Zedong earlier that year; much like how Trump's meeting with Putin was preceded by a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Paralleling Nixon's series of agreements that seemed like capitulation to many Americans caught up in a Cold-War frenzy, Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where he expressed an agreement with the Russian president's claims that he had no involvement in interfering in the 2016 election, has the appearance of capitulation. During his own tour, Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement, in effect enabling the policy of detente that enabled the Soviet Union the space to invade Afghanistan in 1979.

There is much speculation about what motivation Trump had to be so passive and deferential in Helsinki, with the New Yorker arguing that he is somewhat compromised. There is a culture of corruption in many "Eastern Bloc" countries (an outdated term that suddenly seems back in vogue) that may be hard to shed oneself of once they become embroiled in it. As Eric Trump said, the only color that his father sees is green. Therefore, most likely some sort of investment, business move, or debt is imploring Trump to give Russia a benefit of the doubt that he is unwilling to provide many others.

Beyond Trump as an individual is a world that has been led to a very similar situation as the early 1970s. The place the United States (and the world, largely) is in is so similar to four decades ago that it makes one wonder if we are in some sort of self-repeating simulation; long wars in the Middle East, disenchanting liberal political figures, and economic stagnation have led the United States to American retreat, racial tension, and many of the other problems that made the 1970s a hard decade for most.

As mentioned earlier, the Soviet Union took the space of American retreat to invade Afghanistan, a poor move that resulted in the dissolution itself of that country ten years later. Vladimir Putin's Russia most likely has its sights on the Muslim world once again, with Russia providing support for Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan general who would act as a "regional strongman" that would preside over a country left largely leaderless since Muammar Gaddafi was taken out of power by a US-backed coup in 2011. Gaddafi's own son Saif is poised to run in an upcoming election in Libya, as well.

Russia's attitudes toward Africa are strange. Despite racist incidents occurring regularly in the country (especially at soccer events), Moscow has long sought open relationships with many African countries. The murder of Gaddafi has been reported to have upset Putin deeply, with him developing a fear that NATO would attempt that same fate on him. Russia has provided visa free travel to Moroccans, provided arms to Cameroon to fight Boko Haram, and has made economic investments in Ethiopia. Russian intervention in Libya would provide access to the surprisingly large reserves of groundwater that the country provides in its interior.

The repeat of the 1970s would only complete in analogy if it reached a similar conclusion, as well. The Soviet Union overstayed its hand in Afghanistan and was vulnerable to its own compromise when political winds shifted. Putin may be a very deft and intelligent leader, but he is a mortal man who will not be around forever. His country has a history of instability when regimes provide vacancy. Something very unpredictable could happen if he ever resigns from or dies in power.

Likewise, with the development of an "enemy list" and bizarre relationships with celebrities (Nixon gained the friendship of Elvis Presley and James Brown), Donald Trump is really shaping into a Nixonian figure. If he were to meet a similar fate as Nixon, which is increasingly likely if a planned second summit with Putin has a similar reception to the first, a much more seasoned and mainstream American leader could find their place on the American stage, making countering Russia in the world his or her chief sales pitch.

Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps is a writer living in the Bay Area. He also has a music project called Tilhas, which can be seen at