Trump’s treatment of Russia has become a special problem that has handicapped the first part of his presidency. The president is not responsible for the habits of the foreign policy establishment and mainstream media in building up Russia as a threat while treating it like a helpless giant, a trend that began well before the 2016 presidential campaign. Nor is the president responsible for the numerous and demonstrable flaws in Russian foreign policy and domestic governance or the fact that Moscow tends to deny every accusation, whether over its military involvement in eastern Ukraine, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, attacks on government opponents at home and abroad, and most importantly, interference in U.S. and various European elections.
Moreover, when one looks closely at the matter, Russia’s interference in American politics during the 2016 election campaign appears half-hearted and inept—less a product of careful design and more a series of uncoordinated responses to what the Kremlin thought the United States and its European allies were undertaking to influence Russian politics. Still, Russia did interfere and its interference—in combination with Trump’s electoral college victory despite receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton—became a major issue in U.S. domestic politics. The perception among some that Trump won the election only with help from Moscow put the new president and other advocates of a more pragmatic policy toward Russia in a very difficult position.
In the absence of any real evidence of collusion, however, Russia’s actions are Russia’s, not Trump’s. More serious is that too many of his associates had business contacts with shady Russian tycoons. Even if legal, these contacts often did not pass the smell test. Trump’s failure to lay out a clear blueprint for establishing better relations with Moscow either during the campaign or since is also problematic. Trump has not yet explained why improved relations with Russia would be in America’s national security interest, how such an improvement can be accomplished, what precautions must be taken to avoid abandoning other key U.S. interests, and how to protect America if overtures to the Kremlin are not successful. Instead, he has made vague statements indicating that having a better relationship with Moscow would be a good thing, that Putin really admires him, and that other countries, America included, are “not exactly innocent” and have killed too. This hardly constitutes a convincing case to the Congress or the American people for improving relations with Russia. It is least persuasive with the foreign policy elite, who have increasingly seen Russia as public enemy number one and have little interest in reviewing Washington’s past conduct. In this context, suggesting to return Russia to the G7 during a trade dispute with U.S. allies was needlessly provocative.
Trump visibly struggled to create an impressive team of foreign policy advisers who combine national security credentials with independent thinking and sympathy for his basic foreign policy instincts. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, with his anti-Islamic rhetoric, his deaf ear to the Russian challenge, and his chants of “Lock her Up” during Trump’s rallies, became a symbol of the newly-elected leader’s lack of foreign policy gravitas. In the wake of Flynn’s political demise, Mr. Trump appointed people of considerable accomplishment (if not always in foreign policy) like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and un ambassador Nikki Haley, but these officials rarely demonstrated much enthusiasm for Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy ideas. The White House grilled candidates for subcabinet and senior working level foreign policy positions on whether they made anti-Trump statements, but appeared to make little effort to determine whether they were either capable of or interested in helping Trump to develop his foreign policy vision.
President Trump has only recently assembled a national security team whose key members do not distance themselves from the president or pretend to be autonomous players—rather than advisers to the president and implementers of his policy preferences. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or National Security Advisor John Bolton, it is refreshing and reassuring to see officials on television who demonstrate less interest in personal aggrandizement and greater effort to present their personal views on policy to the president rather than in public. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a particularly strong pick, combining vast military experience and a demonstrable toughness in confronting adversaries with the pragmatism and sophistication of a real statesman. How this new team will work together in practice, and how its members will interact with the president, remains to be seen. If Trump provides clear direction, they have the potential to deliver.
Fortunately, the administration’s ill-defined foreign policy has thus far caused no irreparable damage. As leader of the world’s only multidimensional superpower, Trump has shown that ignoring him carries considerable risks and potentially high costs. Practically every nation in the world remains interested in a constructive relationship with the United States. Conversely, nobody is eager to be America’s enemy. As a result, with the right mix of hard and soft power coupled with skillful diplomacy, Trump can still achieve major successes.
The president has created a foundation that may allow him to deliver on his objectives. While the outcome of the planned summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un is unclear at this writing, Kim seems open to negotiating. Pyongyang’s destruction of a nuclear site, release of three American prisoners and rhetorical willingness to proceed with denuclearization suggest that there may be more opportunities than existed at the end of the Obama administration; while Pyongyang promised to give up nuclear weapons in the past, it didn’t have them yet. Additionally, despite America’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran is so far still abiding by the terms of the deal. The Europeans and Russia do not appear prepared to go as far as Trump in demanding comprehensive Iranian concessions—ranging from enrichment limits to missile tests and changes in their regional behavior—but do seem to want to persuade Iran to make some concessions that were unthinkable during the Obama era. Likewise, China does not appear ready to change its trade policies and open its domestic market to the extent that the United States wants, but is acting like it seeks to avoid a trade war and, accordingly, appears prepared to walk at least some distance to accommodate American concerns.
Despite U.S. air attacks on Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Russia’s Iranian allies and Russian mercenaries—scores of whom reportedly perished—Moscow seems to display new energy in finding a cooperative political solution in Syria. During a recent meeting, Putin encouraged Assad not to count on a military victory and to accept a meaningful—if insufficient—constitutional reform that would redistribute power in Syria, an important U.S. objective. In Ukraine, Moscow severely criticized Washington’s delivery of anti-tank missiles—something that Obama feared would result in military confrontation—but has not retaliated militarily or politically. Russia appears open to a negotiated end to the conflict in the Donbass region, which it is unprepared to annex and is weary of supporting financially. What Russia wants is a reliable formula to postpone Ukraine’s nato membership, something few alliance members support soon anyway, and to win a measure of autonomy for the separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk. Moving forward, the Kremlin’s early infatuation with Trump is definitely over. Notwithstanding Moscow’s diminished expectations, Russian officials retain a healthy respect for his unpredictability and determination. And judging from their public complaints over slow U.S. follow through on Trump’s proposal for a summit with Putin, they still appear eager to engage the Trump administration.
There is no denying that Trump’s combination of symbolic and sometimes real pressure, bombastic threats, and equally over-the-top efforts at charming foreign leaders has produced at least some tangible, positive results. For Trump to avoid squandering the opportunities he has created, force, pressure, and unpredictability must be coupled with creativity and diplomacy. Short of war, achieving significant results in dealing with other serious powers—even regional powers like Iran—is impossible unless leaders see incentives as well as punishments. The margin between success and failure in such undertakings can often be quite narrow—and the costs of failure can be quite high, even potentially catastrophic in dealing with other nuclear-armed states. This requires a deadly serious policy, and a systematic process.
Trump faces another obstacle, this one not of his own making, in the U.S. tendency to treat any gains for our adversaries, even providing them with minimal legitimacy, as a betrayal of American virtue. Whether it is Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, or Ayatollah Khamenei, the fact is that we must either defeat our adversaries or cut deals with them—there is no third option. America’s status as the sole superpower allows it to cut better deals than anyone else, but even a good deal isn’t an unconditional surrender. Fortunately, as a businessman, Trump understands this better than most American officials and politicians. Nevertheless, his administration needs a coherent strategy in which the president’s attempts to make deals are not isolated efforts, but interlocking moves on a global chessboard. Among other things, this requires recognizing that victories in one area may impose heavy—or even prohibitive—costs in others. That in turn means defining priorities.