An assortment of issues connecting the president-elect of the United States to Russia range from official Russian interference in the election that Mr. Trump won, to the incoming president’s business interests in Russia, to potentially more serious allegations compiled by a former British intelligence officer working initially at the behest of Trump’s political opponents. The validity of these ingredients in the Trump/Russia story range from high in the case of the Kremlin’s hacking and propaganda activities aimed at discrediting and tilting the American election process, to uncertain regarding Trump’s business interests (thanks largely to his policy of opacity concerning financial records), to unconfirmed (despite media efforts to confirm) in the case of the former British officer’s “dossier”. Certainly there is good reason to investigate thoroughly the various issues and accusations and to air the conclusions from such investigation, to confirm publicly whatever is valid and to dismiss what is invalid and therefore to remove some of the cloud that will hang over everything the new administration does regarding Russia, and the motives for doing it.
As important and interesting as this set of issues is, the focus on them threatens to detract attention from more traditional issues of policy toward states viewed as adversaries, and in particular policy toward Russia. Moreover, some traditional problems may become even worse, because of compensation for, or reaction to, Trump’s fondness for the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin. Many Democrats have become born-again hardliners on Russia, obviously as a way of flashing anti-Trump credentials, thereby reversing some traditional American political alignments regarding policy toward Moscow but without the kind of strategic debate that might otherwise enable such a reversal to make sense. And in confirmation hearings for some of Trump’s nominees, toughness toward Russia has been seen as a sort of litmus test. Sounding tough on Russia—even, or especially, to the point of differing markedly with the president-elect who made the nomination—was part of what the nominee was expected by members of both parties to say, and a hoop through which the nominee had to jump to be confirmed.
A problem with all of this—an old, traditional problem—is that much of this posturing is toughness for the sake of appearing tough. In short supply is analysis as to exactly how and why a specific tough move by the United States should be expected to yield a specific concession from the adversary or to advance U.S. interests in some other way. Rather than specificity and real analysis, what we are given is only a vague sense that if the United States throws its weight around more and does more negative things abroad, then more conundrums of international politics will somehow be solved.
An example is the response of Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, when asked at his confirmation hearing about Russia’s seizure of Crimea. There is no reason to expect Tillerson to have any better ideas than anyone else as to what to do about a Russian action that was both an illegal seizure of foreign territory and an irreversible fait accompli that has strong support among the Russian people. But when challenged by Senator Ben Cardin to be more specific about what Tillerson would have done in response, beyond his assertion that Russia does such things because the United States has not exercised strong enough international leadership, Tillerson offered this: “I would have recommended that the Ukraine take all of its military assets it had available, put them on that eastern border, provide those assets with defensive weapons that are necessary just to defend themselves, announce that the U.S. is going to provide them intelligence and that either NATO or U.S. will provide air surveillance over the border to monitor any movements.”
This immediately raises issues of whether it is the business of the United States to tell Ukraine how to deploy its military assets, and if the Ukrainians haven’t deployed them that way, why not. Even more serious for us is the issue of risk of air forces of the United States and NATO becoming directly involved in warfare in eastern Ukraine. The question pertinent to the present point, though, is: Why should we expect such actions to have changed any of Putin’s policies and behavior, in Donbass or anywhere else? Would the actions Tillerson mentioned tip the military balance enough that Ukraine would have military superiority over Russia? Very doubtful. Would this sort of military mucking in Ukraine by the United States and NATO make Putin less inclined to use little green men and similar techniques to keep stirring the Ukrainian pot and to claim a Russian sphere of influence? Also very doubtful.
But this assertion of toughness qua toughness was enough to satisfy Cardin, who said (as if Ukraine were a member of NATO), “That's encouraging to me, to hear you say that. Because it's not exactly consistent with what Mr. Trump has been saying in regards to Article V commitments under NATO by the United States. So I appreciate your commitment—or your views on the issue.”
General assertions about being more assertive not only mask the underlying absence of analysis but also enable blame to be cast in a desired direction. This was true of Tillerson’s vague statements about insufficiently strong U.S. international leadership. It was also true of Trump's comments, at a press conference that the New York Times headline aptly called a “chaotic forum,” about the election-related Russian hacking. “He shouldn’t be doing it,” Mr. Trump said about Putin. “He won’t be doing it. Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading than when other people have led it.” In other words, whether or not you have anything else to say on a subject—but especially if you don’t—blame Obama.
Such an approach may work in domestic U.S. politics but not in international politics, especially with as tactically skilled a leader as Vladimir Putin. Give Putin enough credit not to be wowed or cowed by toughness qua toughness. He instead will reach his decisions and make his moves in terms of specific costs, risks, relative strength of interests, and facts on the ground. So will most other foreign leaders.