Paul Pillar

Winning May Be the Only Thing for Trump, But Not For the U.S.

A slogan from the sports world—”winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”—which usually is associated with Vince Lombardi, although he probably got it from another football coach, has always had a vacuous quality.  It sounds like an attempt to make a contrast where there isn’t really a contrast.  What meaningful difference is there between “everything” and “only thing”?  But if there is any semantic substance to the phrase, maybe it has to do with winning as a pure, abstract value in its own right, separate from anything about the specific endeavor that was the vehicle for one contestant winning and another one losing.  Winning per se is seen as the only thing that matters because everything else about the game that was played and won doesn’t matter.  And in the sports world, this begins to make sense; the activity is just a game, and it really doesn’t matter in the larger course of human events.

Apply this frame of mind to more consequential endeavors, however, and the implications are more disturbing.  In this regard, consider the incoming U.S. president and what we know, and don’t know, about his outlook on foreign policy.  Despite the earnest and usually sincere efforts by many commentators to discern pattern, direction, and purpose amid Donald Trump’s tweets and other utterances, the dominant picture is still one of inconsistencies, contradictions, slogans, and lack of a record.  We are, late in the transition period, still mostly flying blind regarding the actual future foreign policy of this new presidency.  We have little idea of what Trump really cares about in the substance of U.S. foreign policy, as distinct from rhetoric that has worked in a campaign and that helps in his effort to portray himself as a populist.

We do know, however, that Trump cares a lot about winning—or more precisely, about being seen as a winner.  He constantly returns to the framework of “winners” and “losers” as his way of identifying what is good and bad and what matters to him.  His repeated stress on associating himself with the biggest or best or most successful whatever is part of making sure that he is always seen as a winner.  And on November 8th he registered the biggest win that any individual could.  The slogan about winning being the only thing does appear to apply to Donald Trump and to what drives him.

There are many drawbacks in applying to foreign policy an outlook that is more appropriate to sports, but one set of drawbacks is suggested in a perceptive piece by Mark Katz about prospects for U.S.-Russian relations in the Trump administration.  Katz observes that the principal demands that Vladimir Putin is likely to make as conditions for an improved relationship are ones that Trump would have good reason to agree to.  Accept the Russian annexation of Crimea?  It’s a fait accompli that is not going to be reversed anyway.  Lift Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia?  The sanctions are bad for business.  Promise that none of the former Soviet republics apart from the Baltic states will join NATO or the European Union?  The Europeans don’t want them as members.  Accept continuation of a Russian-allied Assad regime in Damascus?  The jihadist alternatives are even worse.  Although Katz doesn’t say so, these are valid reasons and low-cost ways for not just Trump but any U.S. president to accept much of what Putin wants in the interest of a better relationship that would have benefits for the United States.

The problem, as Katz points out, is that Trump cannot be perceived as caving in to Putin.  He has to be seen instead as having wrung concessions from Putin, and preferably as having gotten the better of him.  Katz emphasizes that Trump especially must be seen doing so in the eyes of a domestic audience that includes hawkish, anti-Russian Congressional Republicans.  Trump has the added baggage of the Russian hacking and interference in the U.S. election; any favorable move he makes toward Putin risks being interpreted as payback for election favors.

On top of this is Trump’s personal fixation about winning.  He will feel a need to get Putin to back down on some of his demands not only to satisfy John McCain and Lindsey Graham but to satisfy himself that he can tout himself as having “won” a negotiation.  The result may be that potential trades and understandings that could serve both U.S. and Russian interests will be forgone.

The general point that Trump is ill-disposed to understand and accept is that what best serves U.S. interests is not always easily recognized or defined as a “win”.  The most effective diplomacy yields agreements that both sides can honestly describe as successes.  The sort of foreign government behavior most likely to serve U.S. interests over the long term is what the foreign government perceives to serve its own long-term interests, rather than being a concession that was wrung out of it and that it will seek the first opportunity to reverse.