Donald Trump's Foreign Policy: Working with Russia from a Position of Strength

06.03.2017

President Trump may be looking for “good deals” for the United States in working with Russia—meaning deals in which he believes that America gets what it wants and needs from Moscow at the lowest reasonable cost to Washington. Negotiations like this could be unpleasant for the Russian government—no one likes to be an object of pressure and leverage—but could well serve both U.S. and Russian interests.

In his first and only foreign policy speech as a presidential candidate (at the Center for the National Interest, in April 2016) Donald Trump said he believed “an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia—from a position of strength—is possible.”  While many in Washington and Moscow noted Mr. Trump’s interest in working with Moscow, his statement that he would attempt this “from a position of strength” received little attention in either capital. Now that he has entered office as president, his words deserve greater attention.

Indeed, Russian officials finally appeared to take note of the “position of strength” formula when Secretary of Defense James Mattis told NATO ministers in mid-February that alliance diplomats should “negotiate from a position of strength”—something quickly dismissed as “futile” by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.  Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin likewise assailed the idea on Facebook, where he insisted that Russia’s defense procurement was increasing year-after-year despite Western sanctions.

This reaction is understandable, in that almost any government is obliged to reject efforts at foreign pressure in conducting its own affairs. To do otherwise would undermine a government’s legitimacy as a capable defender of national interests. Few governments can survive long when perceived as subordinate to a foreign capital; indeed, even governments heavily dependent on Western support—such as that in Afghanistan—regularly act and speak in a manner intended to demonstrate their independence from foreign influence.

Image of Russia as a New Tool in US Political Strife Andrey Sushentsov
The fight staged by the liberals against President Trump actually makes Russia part of the US cultural wars. Russia has become another watershed dividing the parties, just like abortion, minority rights, healthcare issues, as well as migration and taxation policies.

Nevertheless, it is an inescapable fact that the United States is in a position of strength relative to Russia. According to the World Bank, the American economy alone was over thirteen times the size of Russia’s economy in 2015.  Similarly, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, U.S. military spending in 2015 was approximately nine times Russia’s spending.  While some debate comparability of the defense spending statistics, slightly different counting rules do not alter this massive imbalance. Adding America’s NATO allies considerably widens the economic gap and reinforces Western military dominance. Of course, this overall position of strength does not mean that the United States is in a position of strength relative to Russia on every issue, in every geographical region, at every specific point in time. Russia created narrowly-defined positions of strength for itself in Syria and in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, something facilitated by weak and ill-defined U.S. policies in both cases.

Indeed, the Obama administration failed to use American power effectively, not only with respect to Russia, but also in many other areas of U.S. foreign policy. As a former law professor, former President Barack Obama appears to have had far too much faith in international institutions, rules and norms without understanding that at the international level, institutions, rules and norms are only as important as the power behind them.

While few Americans seek new military conflicts, particularly with Russia, many have been highly critical of Mr. Obama’s inability or unwillingness to use U.S. power in the service of U.S. foreign policy objectives. One of the former president’s most striking statements was his March 2014 insistence that Russia could not be “deterred from further escalation [in Ukraine] by military force”—something that defied decades of U.S. thinking and policy about deterrence. Mr. Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his statement that use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line” similarly spoke volumes.

Unlike former President Obama, President Donald Trump appears to have an intuitive understanding of power, probably from his background as a negotiator. In his book The Art of the Deal, he writes,

The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead. The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have. Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs. Or best of all, simply can’t do without.

This is a clear and concise explanation of what Mr. Trump likely means when he talks about negotiating from a position of strength.

At the same time, President Trump seems to believe that modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal and strengthening the U.S. military can not only make the United States safer, but also enhance Washington’s credibility in dealing with others. Moreover, he argues, U.S. adversaries “shouldn’t know” America’s plans and accordingly often refuses to answer questions about his administration’s response to their conduct. President Trump’s recent refusal to answer a question about North Korea is one example of this.  Forcing adversaries—and partners—to contend with uncertainty about U.S. actions is another way to strengthen U.S. leverage in dealing with them. Hinting at tough U.S. responses creates leverage by establishing something that the other side may want, need, or desperately seek to avoid.

As a practical matter, of course, there are limits to U.S. leverage in working with Russia, in no small part because Moscow’s massive nuclear arsenal effectively prevents Washington, or any other government, from compelling the Russian government to act in ways that contravene fundamental Russian national interests. In some ways this is less important than it appears, however, in that no negotiation can ever force the other side to accept something it is unwilling to accept; negotiation inherently requires mutual willingness to participate. Mr. Trump surely knows that too, having also written in The Art of the Deal that “you have to convince the other guy it’s in his interest to make the deal.” Russia can always decide not to work with the Trump administration, or not to acquiesce to a tough U.S. negotiating demand, so long as Russian leaders are prepared to accept the costs of that choice.

What this means is that President Trump may be looking for “good deals” for the United States in working with Russia—meaning deals in which he believes that America gets what it wants and needs from Moscow at the lowest reasonable cost to Washington. This approach will be especially important in Washington’s current political climate, where there are few rewards for trying to engage with Russia. Negotiations like this could be unpleasant for the Russian government—no one likes to be an object of pressure and leverage—but could well serve both U.S. and Russian interests too. 

The question for Russian leaders is what price they are willing to pay to try to stabilize the U.S.-Russia relationship and to move away from an expensive and enduring confrontation with America that significantly constrains Russia’s strategic flexibility in the international system and poses simultaneous tactical dangers. Only Mr. Trump’s counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin, knows the answer—and as a hard negotiator himself, he seems unlikely to reveal it too soon.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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