Get Ready for the Most Violent Détente Ever

Trump and Putin want to reset U.S.-Russian relations on the basis of a shared worldview. But that might just increase the chances of a conflict.



NOVEMBER 21, 2016 foreign policy


some American presidents have foreign-policy doctrines. Others are inclined to trust their gut. For a very few, their gut is their foreign-policy doctrine. Donald Trump seems to belong to this latter and most rare type. He poses an extraordinary challenge to anyone attempting to imagine how visceral instincts and dispositions can be translated into actionable policies, for good or ill.

The most compelling, and perhaps the most urgent, such challenge concerns Russia. There is a facile assumption that détente and peaceful coexistence between the United States and Russia will now be in the offing. It is an assumption that urgently needs to be reassessed.

Distilling a coherent policy on Russian relations from president-elect Trump’s jumble of campaign catchphrases and provocative one-liners is no easy task— which is why a more reasonable starting place may be to consider Trump’s likely motives for lavishing praise on Vladimir Putin during the campaign, against the pleas of his advisors and running mate. Some America-watchers inside the Kremlin apparently considered Trump’s eccentric pro-Russian pronouncements more as a business gambit than as a rudimentary foreign policy. Many Democrats, on the other hand, seem to assume that Trump’s deferential attitude toward the Russian president reflects undisclosed financial entanglements and perhaps even the Kremlin’s possession of reputation-blackening kompromat.

But Trump’s “cozying up to Putin,” to use Sen. John McCain’s derogatory phrase, is better understood as his way of soliciting support among disenchanted American voters. It helped him position himself as a rebel leader and frame the quadrennial election as a revolution-in-the-making. Above all, it dramatically illustrated his willingness to break radically with the entire Washington establishment, Republican as well as Democratic. To excite the loyalty of his politically alienated voters, he needed to communicate unequivocally that he would have nothing to do with the Washington insiders who had allegedly betrayed them. He did this by signaling his dissent from most of the central foreign-policy tenets of his own nominal party, including the premise that Russia is one of the country’s foremost national-security threats. It was Mitt Romney, after all, who, as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, labeled Russia as America’s geopolitical enemy No. 1.

Trump may have been attempting, in addition, to puff his own legendary savvy as a dealmaker. By transforming Putin from an adversary into a partner, Trump implied, he could reassert America’s global power while staying at home and refusing to send American troops abroad. And at a subliminal level, candidate Trump may also have been playing on his electorate’s dim fantasy that Putin is “a white Christian at war with brown Muslims.”

Of course, making sense of candidate Trump’s electorally expedient stance toward Putin is only a first step toward divining his administration’s potential Russia policy. Some moves, of course, are predictable. Sanctions will possibly be eased. The annexation of Crimea will presumably be accepted informally, though not formally. Cooperation in fighting the Islamic State will no doubt be ratcheted up, although denigrating remarks about Islam will come easier to Trump than to Putin, given the Russian Federation’s large Muslim population. But what can we see if we look past such particular issues and peer through the fog of an amateurish and fractious transition? Is there an overarching strategy that will be informing the Trump administration’s Russia policy?

Trump’s “America First” refrain is obviously more of a slogan than a doctrine. What makes it fascinating as a portent of the new administration’s foreign policy is the way it combines a turn toward disengagement and isolationism with an insistence that America will start “winning” the zero-sum global competition again. To put this in personal terms, president-elect Trump seems bent on wedding Rand Paul’s utopia of American disengagement with Dick Cheney’s utopia of a unilateral America über alles. But can such a marriage of irreconcilables be consummated?

To gain some purchase on the opportunities and dangers of this Janus-faced approach, it helps to recognize how closely Trump’s stance tracks Putin’s posture in international affairs. Trump presumably recognizes the convergence, having contrasted Putin’s bold leadership not only to Obama’s passivity and caution but also to Hillary Clinton’s hawkish fondness for foreign intervention. Without poring over State Department briefing books, Trump has an intuitive sense — justified, in our estimation — that Putin, rather than being a neo-Soviet imperialist, is a besieged leader whose bloody forays beyond Russia’s borders, however risky, have been basically defensive. He understands that Putin’s geopolitical adventures have been driven largely by an abiding anxiety about his country’s domestic weaknesses and Washington’s eagerness to embrace regime change abroad. The same cultural sensitivity that has allowed Trump to tune into the resentments of downwardly mobile white Americans helps explain his empathy for Putin, whose once-powerful country is now bereft of soft power — its economy is uncompetitive, its petrodollar-subsidized living standards are plummeting, and its population is aging and dwindling.

Putin’s foreign policy is marked by a kind of aggressive isolationism. His two guiding principles are disentanglement from the international system, symbolized by Moscow’s recent withdrawal from the Rome Statute of 2000, which set up the International Criminal Court, and a reassertion of Russia’s relevance as a global player, symbolized by the flotilla of Russian warships now participating in the siege of Aleppo. These also happen to be the two principles that inform the paradoxical approach to American power that Trump, too, guided not by experts but by his gut, has made his own.

Given this elective affinity, Trump’s initial discussions with Moscow will be very different from Obama’s ill-fated “reset.”

Given this elective affinity, Trump’s initial discussions with Moscow will be very different from Obama’s ill-fated “reset.” What Trump offers Putin is not simply cooperation on a range of issues where the two countries’ interests overlap. What he offers, instead, is a shared narrative about what went wrong in the post-Cold War world. Verbally, at least, he will hold out the possibility of a reactionary alliance against cosmopolitan liberalism and the rootless globalists who are undermining national sovereignty everywhere we look.

Unfortunately, a shared repugnance for liberal internationalism, celebrated and sealed by the clinking of champagne flutes in the Kremlin, is no guarantee of mutual cooperation or even peaceful coexistence. On the surface, Trump’s repeated assertion that America’s allies are swindling the United States, which reflects a piddling fee-for-service conception of alliances in general and especially of the arguably obsolete NATO alliance, might seem like music to Putin’s ears. But if we more closely examine the political earthquake of Nov. 8, we will see why a shared illiberalism will do little or nothing to reduce tensions between Russia and the United States.

First of all, the populist insurgency that just overthrew the American political establishment represents the very sort of resentment-fueled instability that frightens Moscow most. An ardent opponent of regime change, Putin has been subsidizing populist insurgencies in various European countries not to replace the governing parties but simply to sap the EU’s unity and coherence. Similarly, any hypothetical clandestine Russian involvement in the American presidential campaign was presumably aimed at weakening Clinton before she acceded to the presidency as well as discrediting the American political model in general, not at electing Trump. Nothing would unnerve the Kremlin more than a new rash of Orange Revolutions. The fact that they will now be anti-liberal rather than liberal revolutions is no real consolation. Let’s assume that Trump is being sincere when promising Putin non-interference in the domestic politics of other countries. By inspiring emulators, his seditious example will nevertheless be inherently threatening to ruling elites around the world. And while Putin has every reason to rejoice at Trump’s snide dismissals of NATO, he will be less enthusiastic about Trump’s insistence that all of America’s allies must increase their defense budgets to the promised 2 percent. Spooked by a seasoned dealmaker’s calculated bluff that he will otherwise cut them loose, the truant members of NATO are very likely to do just that.

Second, the U.S. election delivered a fatal blow to the dominant narrative designed to legitimate the Putin regime in the face of Russia’s poor and worsening economic conditions. According to this narrative, all Russia’s problems result from a global liberal conspiracy, led by the United States, to humiliate Russia and prevent it from assuming its rightful place in the world. But in an election covered 24/7 by Russian state media, the candidate who was repeatedly branded as “Putin’s puppet” was elected president by the American people. The way this democratic outcome has sabotaged Putin’s legitimacy formula can be illustrated by the comments of some of Russia’s leading nationalists. In a series of tweets after the election, Alexander Dugin declared that “Anti-Americanism is over”.

And this is not because it was wrong but exactly the opposite. It is because the American people themselves have started the revolution against precisely that aspect of the USA that we all hated. Now the European ruling elite as well as the part of the Russian elite that is still liberal cannot be blamed as before for being be too pro-American. From now on, it should be blamed for being what it is: a corrupt, perverted greedy gang of bankers and destroyers of cultures, traditions, and identities.

But the end of anti-Americanism, prematurely fêted by Russian nationalists, promises to be the beginning of a destabilizing crisis inside Russia. A principal source of Putin’s legitimacy since he returned to the presidency in 2012 has been the obsessively repeated accusation that the United States is a hypocritical superpower, publicly espousing universal values but acting secretly in pursuit of narrow national advantage. Trump’s embrace of “America First,” whatever it means in practice, makes nonsense out of Putin’s endlessly recycled excoriations of America’s inveterate hypocrisy.

On a more practical level, Trump’s election obliges Putin to own the chaos he has sowed in both Syria and eastern Ukraine.

On a more practical level, Trump’s election obliges Putin to own the chaos he has sowed in both Syria and eastern Ukraine. Standing up to the United States was arguably a principal motivation for Putin’s interventions in both countries, justified to the Russian public largely as ways of sticking a finger into America’s eye, revealing its weakness and hypocrisy, and teaching it that Russia cannot be ignored. But the president-elect’s expressed willingness to offer Putin a wide berth in both arenas greatly diminishes the domestic political value of the two incursions as sources of national pride. Here again, Trump’s embrace of Putin may soon come to resemble a kiss of death.

Third, Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s heft on the international stage has depended on his leading the revolt against American-orchestrated globalization. This picture has no doubt been scrambled by Trump’s eccentric argument that globalization is a conspiracy not by, but against, the United States. But the more important development is that the uncontested leader of the deglobalizing world, the most visible counter-revolutionary in the worldwide fight against liberal internationalism, will soon be the president of the United States, a figure immensely more powerful and imitation-worthy than the president of Russia. The unbridled enthusiasm with which Europe’s anti-establishment populists have greeted Trump’s victory reflects the fact that he is perfectly credible as a populist insurgent in a way that Putin, who has dominated the election-proof Russian state for almost two decades, is not. The rise of anti-EU populism in Europe could even have the paradoxical consequence of drawing Trump into a new trans-Atlantic alliance of populist democracies based on a new set of illiberal “shared values.”

Russia’s economic difficulties mean that Putin, to achieve relief from Western sanctions, may enter into a momentary Berlusconi-style bromance with the new U.S. president. But the honeymoon is unlikely to last because Russia’s economic difficulties oblige its government to hunt for enemies, foreign and domestic. It’s likely that Trump will also soon be looking to magnify the role of domestic and foreign enemies to fend off domestic criticism and explain his inevitable failures.

The likelihood of such a parallel search for enemies by two aggressive isolationists should clarify why Trump’s cozying up to Putin during the campaign doesn’t promise to make the world a safer or less hostile place. Parallels may never cross in geometry, but in geopolitics they can violently intersect, to catastrophic effect. What makes matters worse is that the foundation of mutual understanding that allowed Moscow and Washington to manage nail-biting crises during the Cold War has by now completely eroded. Although Trump might be able to reduce the overt animosity between the White House and the Kremlin, he will find it much more difficult to rebuild the two countries’ shared assumptions about how the world works. Senior members of Putin’s entourage have repeatedly resorted to reckless talk of nuclear blackmail, which will make it immensely difficult for Western leaders to keep a cool head in any high-stakes emergency. The paucity of steadying foreign-policy hands in Trump’s inner circle is equally worrying, as is the possibility that Trump’s habit of making friendly offhand comments, whether in tweets or at public rallies, may lead Russia to underestimate the possibility of a violent American response to incursions, say, into the Baltic states.

President-elect Trump arguably won the election by burning his bridges with the Republican Party’s foreign-policy and national-security establishments, but governing will require some of these bridges to be rebuilt. How this will work out in practice is still not known. One thing is certain, however: A gut-level aversion to foreign adventurism will not suffice to keep the country safe. Two proud and thin-skinned leaders with similar worldviews and wielding more unilateral power than it makes sense to confide in any single individual could, after an amiable interlude, all too easily trigger a tit-for-tat spiral of escalating insult and injury that may drag the helplessly watching world toward a catastrophe that no one could possibly intend