It seems an odd classification, but U.S. foreign policy, especially its policy towards Russia, is now filed in media and government under a new subsection on elite attitudes towards President Trump. Analyses of President Putin’s character, questions of whom we should fight (both with and against) in Iraq and Syria, whether Washington should rebuild or further scale down America’s nuclear armory, U.S. relations with the Muslim world, what attitude the U.S. should take towards the various unraveling crises in Europe, and whether Israel should be treated as a favored ally or a pariah (an especially ticklish question if Bibi Netanyahu remains in office) — all these questions are examined not on their alleged merits or in line with a particular strategy, but through the lens of what Trump seems to think about them. In most cases, the presumption is that if he favors a particular policy, either it’s wrong or he is doing so from corrupt and/or sinister motives.
The presumption of wrongness arises from the all-but-universal belief of America’s political, cultural, and media elites that Trump is so obviously a crass, impulsive, and ignorant blowhard that almost any action he takes on a serious topic will be wrong nine times out of ten. The sinister motive most commonly attributed to him is that he’s in hock to Moscow in return for its collusive assistance in winning the November election, or because it knows something to his discredit. There is almost no evidence for this second explanation, and what little cause there is for suspicion shrinks by the day. One might suppose that such a serious charge against a U.S. president would not be advanced, even by hints and raised eyebrows, without very solid evidence amounting almost to proof. Yet as each new twist on the Manchurian Candidate charge falls by the wayside, the accusers leap onto another one and gallop off furiously in all directions.
As for Trump’s mental acuity, one can’t help noticing that his foolish and impulsive asides often have the delayed effect of helping him and disconcerting his enemies. His charge that President Obama ordered the wiretapping of an opposition presidential candidate, though obviously false (Loretta Lynch would have needed no such instruction), has nonetheless forced national-security officials to deny the rumors that were previously the basis of the Manchurian Candidate ploy. No, Trump is no brain surgeon, but he’s not in need of one either.
The same cannot always be said of his fiercest foreign-policy critics. If your judgment of how to resolve the Ukraine crisis or the war against ISIS is determined or even merely distorted by your negative feelings about President Trump in general, you are going to reach some very odd conclusions — including conclusions that often run counter to your overall strategic views. As others have noticed, the Right has recently been less harsh towards Russia and the Left considerably more hostile — to the point where Russia Today has greatly enjoyed itself by poking fun at the anti-Russian paranoid hostility of the Democrats and the American media, contrasting it sharply with the puzzled amiability of ordinary Americans on the New York streets. (I write as the unrepentant author of a harsh London Spectator article on the dark, sarcastic brilliance of Putin’s own favorite propaganda outlet. We shouldn’t make RT’s job so easy.)
The intellectual basis for this development on the left and in the media is that Trump, even if he is not actually a Russian agent, nonetheless in the campaign said unforgivably moderate things about Russia (and by implication about Putin), suggested that the two countries should be able to get along, made statements casting doubt on the usefulness of NATO, backed off a GOP commitment to maintain sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in general made it clear that he wasn’t looking for a fight with anyone — and is therefore probably a Russian dupe. (The intellectual basis for the GOP’s more relaxed response is that none of these policies require higher taxes.)
All that was before the election. Since November, after a hiccup over General Flynn, Trump has appointed a strong national-security team that has drawn favorable reviews. He has also backed away from some of his more “controversial” positions cited above, reaffirming America’s commitment to NATO, proposing a large increase in defense spending, paying compliments to the European Union, and much else. None of this has had much effect as yet on the media buzz about his supposed pro-Russian proclivities. It is hard to cast doubt on something that a herd of independent-minded journalists desperately wants to believe.
These early actions of Trump reflect some prudent conservative calculations, which he has accepted if not initiated. And some established U.S. foreign policies, including some policies towards Russia and Europe, do need reform, as we shall see. Those reforms may include a “deal” with the Kremlin, but the key question about that is, “On what, and on whose terms?” Maintaining and reforming established institutions and arrangements is easier and more foreseeable in its effects than scrapping them and starting again (though that may sometimes be necessary too). And when working out what to do, we should look at the totality of policy rather than at one issue at a time as if they were unconnected. President Reagan’s gradual undermining of the Soviet Union included such items as keeping a watch on the gold price in order to know how desperate they were for foreign exchange.
In a more-than-shrewd blog posting for The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead made this point powerfully enough for me to quote it at some length (my italics):
If Trump were the Manchurian candidate that people keep wanting to believe that he is, here are some of the things he’d be doing:
- Limiting fracking as much as he possibly could
- Blocking oil and gas pipelines
- Opening negotiations for major nuclear arms reductions
- Cutting U.S. military spending
- Trying to tamp down tensions with Russia’s ally Iran
That Trump is planning to do precisely the opposite of these things may or may not be good policy for the United States, but anybody who thinks this is a Russia appeasement policy has been drinking way too much joy juice.
Obama actually did all of these things, and none of the liberal media now up in arms about Trump ever called Obama a Russian puppet; instead, they preferred to see a brave, farsighted and courageous statesman. Trump does none of these things and has embarked on a course that will inexorably weaken Russia’s position in the world . . .
Is that how Putin views Trump from his desk at the Kremlin? It seems more and more likely that he does. Earlier statements from the intelligence services that Putin had been praising Trump during the campaign (and vice versa) seem to have been exaggerated at best. He described Trump as “colorful,” with the same connotation of eccentric harmlessness as in English. More recent reports from Moscow say that Russia Today has been instructed to be less favorable to Trump as his policies become more conventionally anti-Russian. A consensus seems to be slowly emerging that while Putin was indeed hoping to influence the U.S. election, his intention was to make it appear a hypocritical farce all around and weaken the candidate who the Kremlin thought would be the eventual winner — namely Hillary Clinton.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil oligarch–turned–political prisoner now living in London, speculates that even if someone in the Trump campaign is discovered to have been working for the FSB (the KGB’s successor), it will have been a low-level corruption resulting from the reliance of Trump’s insurgent campaign on alt-elites rather than mainstream ones and from Putin’s efforts to cultivate such alternative figures throughout the West. “It would be strange if nobody [in the U.S.] got caught on that hook,” Khodorkovsky told the Washington Free Beacon. Putin therefore has no reasonable expectation of dividing the known world, or even merely Europe, between Trump and himself. Quite the contrary: Irrespective of Trump’s policies, Putin’s Russia is in trouble.
Consider Russia from a cold-blooded standpoint. It is an important country with a GDP of about the same size as that of Australia. It ranks twelfth in projected GDP for 2016; for comparison, consider that the U.K. ranks fifth. And it is in no position to compete economically or strategically with either the United States or China. Its economy is integrated into the world economy (unlike that of the old Soviet Union), but it is overly reliant on oil, gas, and other fossil-fuel energy resources. It is therefore badly hit by the low price for oil, which now looks to be a semi-permanent feature of the world economy.
That failing and the budgetary shortfall it aggravates are made worse by the severe EU and NATO sanctions imposed by the West. These deter the foreign investment that Russia needs to modernize and extend its energy production — and to embark on the overall economic modernization that has been neglected hitherto to finance both the transfer payments (such as pensions) that are essential to the regime’s popularity and the military modernization on which Putin’s foreign policy rests. Putin’s Russia today is looking more and more like the Soviet Union in the days of Yuri Andropov, a weak economy unduly burdened by massive military spending. Mikhail Gorbachev solved that problem (though he brought down the USSR in the process) by surrendering in the Cold War and diverting money from the military to the civilian economy.
Putin will be hard put to do the same, however, because he is seeking to restore Russia as a great power, to create a Eurasian Co-Prosperity Sphere (which looks strangely like the Soviet Union) that would buttress Russian power, to destabilize neighboring countries that threaten to break away (“frozen conflicts”), and to draw Russian-speaking populations into the fatherland in order to remedy the rising problem that non-Russian minorities will shortly be a majority in the Russian Federation. All these aims require money — to continue the transfer payments that soothe discontents, to finance the military adventures when soothing fails, and not least to operate the perpetual propaganda machine that keeps the population in a state of paranoid patriotism.
Now, look again at the list of policies discussed by Trump as cited by Mead: giving the green light to fracking, encouraging oil and gas pipelines in the U.S., rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal, greatly increasing military spending, and raising tensions with Russia’s ally, Iran. With the exception of the final policy (which raises other issues), all these would seem to be directly targeted at blocking what Putin wants. If these policies are in fact pursued, Putin cannot get the energy market he needs, he cannot match Washington’s military spending, and above all he cannot be certain that America’s technological superiority will not cancel out the single greatest source of his (and Russia’s) power: nuclear missiles. In fact, Trump need only start the process of rebuilding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, or even merely discuss doing so, to force Putin to either get out of the race or spend unsustainably to stay in — as Reagan memorably did to Gorbachev with “Star Wars.” That would put Putin in a fundamentally weak strategic position, and a fundamentally unstable domestic political one.
So what cards does Putin have in his hand? He is a bold card player who, unlike most Western leaders, is not afraid to take risks or use force. He can afford to do both because his own buildup has modernized Russia’s military — and, according to the experts, given it technically advanced weapons of high quality, moving it far beyond the sorry state it was in even a few years ago in the Russo–Georgian war. He has used the diplomatic influence his military gives him quite subtly at times, preventing Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO for instance, and quite brutally at others, as in his on-off wooing of the hapless President Obama to cooperate in the campaign against ISIS that soon became a campaign against America’s allies in the war against ISIS. He has not always succeeded, but even when he fails, he manages to convince the world that he has gained his object.
For example, he has not only not won in Ukraine; he has lost the greater part of a country he once controlled by proxy, he looks like being left with an inefficient statelet in the Donbass region that will cost him money rather than furnish it, and he has fostered a formidable Ukrainian nationalism that still resists him (and will of course resist any great-power bargain that threatens its continued independence). But very few people believe this — or see the opportunity that a split Ukraine gives the West to recreate the economic competition between West and East Germany that helped to win the Cold War. Elsewhere, he has restored Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East, formed an effective alliance with Iran that threatens Lebanon, Jordan, and other Western allies, come close to driving the U.S. out of the region, and altogether replaced the U.S. as the Middle East’s dominant diplomatic player.
That’s impressive even if the victory came over a U.S. president who was exceptionally clueless in foreign policy. But all Putin’s victories, even the real ones, are victories from a weak position, and thus vulnerable. And he’s financially overstretched. He would doubtless be amenable to a grand bargain, but given his larger strategic weakness, Putin cannot insist on favorable terms or be allowed to ignore the U.S. without penalty.
There will be a temptation for the Trump administration — as Trump more or less speculated earlier — to see Ukraine and ISIS as bargaining counters. We make a concession to Putin on Ukraine and Eastern Europe generally, and Putin in turn halts Russia’s advance at the Syrian border and acquiesces in a long-term recovery of the U.S. position in Iraq. Result: We are allies against jihadism. Obviously, the (multiple) devils are in the details, but such a deal would be a very bad one for America and the West, for some very broad reasons. The Middle East will inevitably decline in strategic importance as oil and energy grow more plentiful worldwide. ISIS is already on the decline and is likely to decline further as defeat looms and mocks its pretensions to leadership of the world’s Muslims. As the experience of both the U.S. and the U.K. makes painfully clear, there are no permanent victories or, therefore, permanent allies in Middle Eastern politics. The Russians are unlikely to stay on top for long — remember their ejection from Egypt engineered by Nixon and Kissinger, who did understand foreign policy. And though ISIS sympathizers and other jihadists will remain a threat for the indefinite future, they are a different kind of threat from an unstable Eastern Europe subverted by Russian incursions and a Europe severed from the U.S. by delusions of being a new kind of postmodern polity. Jihadists can blow up a city, and the toll in lives could be a terrible one. But they cannot invade and occupy Europe except by non-military incursions — and even then, they can succeed only if they are allowed to do so by political leaders in the grip of post-national illusions.
If no bargain that subordinates European stability to haggling in a Middle Eastern bazaar can be worth the candle, what does that imply for U.S. policy? After Brexit, and in order to cope with whatever monsters the French, Dutch, and German elections may bring forth, Washington has two plain duties to perform in Europe. The first — and simpler — is to sustain and improve NATO, which involves both pressing the Europeans to spend much more on their own defense and ensuring that very little of that spending is diverted to European military projects outside of NATO.
Putin has made the strengthening of NATO easier to achieve politically by his own military buildup and the bellicose noises he occasionally emits. He is frightening NATO into solidarity.
The second is to admit that the European Union, as a project of ever-closer union — a project that has had strong Washington support since the late 1940s — has reached the end of that particular road, and to propose reforms for a better version. The EU has many achievements to its credit, and most Europeans don’t want either to leave it or to see it disappear. Britain is the exception here — and a readily understandable one. Unlike other European countries, the Brits emerged from World War II proud that their democratic institutions had saved themselves and helped to save Europe. They never wanted to submerge those institutions in European ones that were less democratic, less liberal, and more centralized.
Other Europeans were readier to choose a collective future, but not to the extent of the uniformity of the present EU. It has taken too many decisions away from national parliaments, drained too much democratic power from elections and voters, produced too many failures (of which the euro and refugee crises are currently the most alarming), and weakened too many national patriotisms without installing a European patriotism in their place. Voters are rebelling in consequence, and even the EU’s central institutions are (in their “Five Presidents” report) prepared to discuss the possibility that “More Europe” should be replaced by a more flexible, decentralized, and liberal set of arrangements.
The rise of “populism” across the continent has made all these crises more acute. At the same time, U.S. policy under Obama (and hypothetically under Clinton if she had won) has been committed almost unthinkingly to a European status quo that simply isn’t working. Trump is the first U.S. president since Truman who has the chance to help Europe develop a new structure and direction for its energies — and apparently the interest in doing so — behind the protection offered by U.S. membership of NATO. Europe needs that assurance if it is to resolve its crises calmly and positively rather than, as now, on the anvil of crisis.
What this means for Putin is that, as in 1949–89, containment is back on the agenda: The West will not allow its member states, even those on the edge of Russia, to be subjected to salami tactics leading to absorption or local domination. That wasn’t where Trump seemed to be heading most of last year, but it’s the destination implied by his national-security appointments and recent statements (doubtless with many a wobble along the way). Within that broad outlook, Trump can offer all kinds of deals to Putin for the strengthening of Russia economically and otherwise (including U.S. cooperation with the latter’s Eurasian Economic Union), provided that they don’t treat independent countries as pawns. A further long-term quid pro quo can be offered to Russia for not breaking the rules of the international game — namely, full membership in the club of Euro-Atlantic institutions. That may seem a pipe dream today, but it was something that Russians really wanted in the decade after 1989, and show its regard for Russia as a current equal and a future partner.
As Trump’s policies, from fracking to nuclear modernization, sharpen the economic and military pressures on Putin’s vulnerable system, this more cooperative Russo–American–Euro relationship — what used to be called détente — could offer the Kremlin more effective security than the Russian president’s military adventurism. Halting the Ukraine war on the terms already negotiated by Angela Merkel (but ignored on the ground) — perhaps deep-sixing the issue of Crimea by handing it over to a Russo-Ukrainian commission — is an obvious starting point.
Nor should we forget the potential domestic instability of Putin’s regime behind its façade of strength. The art of the deal would significantly reduce the risks of economic collapse and regime change for Putin. It might also offer the richest man in the world a safe haven in the event things do go wrong. Khodorkovsky, now in the regime-change business, has speculated as follows: “The only opportunity to seriously change things . . . would be to convince Putin that it is in his best interest to leave power while this [Trump] administration is in power. Then all the other problems can and will be solved.”
That doesn’t seem very likely today either. But neither did a President Trump this time last year.