The growing consensus is that Donald Trump, if elected U.S. president, would push for stronger relations with Russia. But is that really the case?
A couple sits in front of graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, May 14, 2016. Photo: AP
Over the past several months the American media has published a number of stories about the alleged affinity between the current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, and the possible future American leader, Donald Trump.
The stories tend to be speculative in nature, drawing connections where likely none exist. Does Trump’s decision to hold a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 say very much about the likely future trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations?
Trump seemed downright thrilled when Mr. Putin paid him a mild (and possibly backhanded) compliment some months back, calling him “very flamboyant, very talented.” Can or should we draw any serious conclusions from that? Probably not.
Some pundits, particularly those in the neoconservative camp, have gone so far to as to declare Trump’s alleged fondness for what they invariably refer to as “the Russian strongman” as disqualifying him for office. Still worse, during Trump’s rambling foreign policy address in Washington on Apr. 27, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, was spotted in the front row. How, the neocons reason, can we have a dyed-in-the-wool Putin “apologist” as commander-in-chief?
While a Trump victory in November may be a boon to U.S.-Russian reconciliation after the twin disasters of the Bush and Obama presidencies, that outcome is far from certain. In order for relations between the two powers to turn around, Trump will need to avoid the typical D.C. think tank groupthink regarding Russia that mysteriously remains so deeply influential in the halls of power in Washington.
He will also need to avoid a very specific bureaucratic pitfall that has bedeviled President Obama from the very start of his tenure. Trump will need to come to the realization that personnel is policy, and that if he appoints neocons and liberal hawks to positions of power, as Obama did (see: Gates, Robert; Clinton, Hillary; Power, Samantha; Rice, Susan; Nuland, Victoria; Carter, Ashton) he will end up with policies that reflect the political predilections of his appointees.
A second thing Trump will need to do to solve the U.S.-Russia logjam is that he is going to have to go outside of his comfort zone. This is because the issues that bedevil U.S.-Russia relations are most certainly not related to economics or trade, which are Trump’s self-proclaimed areas of expertise.
Trump will need to challenge the post Cold War consensus, in which the West has shunned any serious effort at building an inclusive – rather than exclusive - security architecture in Europe. Rather, it has favored a policy of NATO expansion and isolation of Russia. In doing so, the U.S. has framed the Russia question as primarily one of “security interests” and how the West can balance the interests of Russia and Europe.
Solving the riddle hinges on Trump’s willingness to question the quite expansive definition of what the D.C. consensus sees as core U.S. national security interests. Should the most overblown fears of American neocons and liberal hawks come to pass, Trump will need to decide whether keeping the Russians out of Tallinn or Riga or Kiev is truly a core American national security interest.
It will also require a subtler understanding of alliance dynamics than perhaps he has at present. The realist journalist and sometime U.S. government adviser Walter Lippmann famously opined that, “An alliance is like a chain... it is not made stronger by adding weak links to it."
Trump also needs to realize that within alliances, the weaker members have the tendency to wag the dog. He will need to understand the real lesson of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. It was not an exercise in Russian “aggression,” but rather, it was a reckless attempt by a leader (Mikheil Saakashvili) of a small country (Georgia) to start a war with Russia because he received tacit American support from his friends on Capitol Hill.
Trump will not be able to obtain such knowledge from the current bureaucracy, nor will he be able to obtain it from the think tanks or from his principal national security adviser, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), who himself is being advised by hawkish think tank types.
Finally, Trump will need to exercise leadership traits that he has yet to exhibit - imagination and ability to see a problem from the other side’s perspective. He will need to consider how the U.S. would react if Russia and/or China decided to position troops, battleship carriers, and missile defense installations in Canada, Mexico or Cuba.
If he can manage these things, then there is at least a fighting chance that decent relations between the U.S. and Russia may emerge. If not, expect more of the same.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.