The question, before one turns to the Administration’s Russia policy, hinges on how much Trump’s right-wing domestic agenda and the political struggle he will face in enacting it will distract him from any serious attention to other than a few urgent foreign policy issues.
Predicting what President Trump will do in almost any area of U.S. foreign policy, including the Administration’s approach to Russia, is like predicting how the world will end. Ever since the election pundits everywhere have been scurrying about attempting read into his tweets, off-hand comments, and cabinet appointments what he has in mind and what he may or may not be able to do. It is a fool’s errand. That said, the effects from what he has already said in late-night missives, newspaper interviews, and his recent press conference have left European allies nonplussed, the Chinese angry, and the Russians uneasy but hopeful. Even before entering office, he has churned up confusion, dismay, and uncertainty in critical regions around the world.
So, the first question is whether that is good for Russia? One assumes that Russia’s leadership wants predictability in the world around it. They, as leaders in many other capitols, must worry about how much instability Trump’s foreign policy may introduce into the international setting. The second question, before one turns to the Administration’s Russia policy, hinges on how much Trump’s right-wing domestic agenda and the political struggle he will face in enacting it will distract him from any serious attention to other than a few urgent foreign policy issues.
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As for U.S. Russia policy, uncertainty abounds, and for many reasons. First, given the impulsive and inconsistent nature of Trump’s remarks, it is difficult to know which of the things he has said he will actually act on. Second, even assuming that he does not accept the anti-Russian consensus that exists within much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including his own party, and that he does believe it is better to seek areas of cooperation with Russia, the unanswered question is how he will proceed, if opposed by members of his own foreign policy team, the vast majority of the U.S. Congress, including key Republican leaders, and the country’s opinion makers. Third, even if he is serious about improving relations with Russia and can manage to overcome resistance within the administration, Congress, and elite opinion, it is far from clear that he and those on whom he will depend are capable of translating their preference into a workable policy—that is, able to set an agenda that reconciles often conflicting purposes and then to devise a strategy that coordinates ends and means. And, fourth, even if all of these unknowns are overcome, there remains the question of whether the Russian side, given the uncertainties that will linger, will be willing to make the compromises necessary allowing a Trump administration to pursue a more cooperative U.S.-Russian relationship.
Perhaps answers to some or all of these questions will emerge three or four months into the new administration. Until then observers would be wise to suspend judgment, and be prepared for a wide range of possible outcomes.