The Trump administration provides a magnificent opportunity for Moscow to revive – hopefully with Washington’s support – Prime Minister Medvedev’s idea of a European Security Council and architecture dedicated to preventing crises like Ukraine from occurring again, It might be that skilful Russian diplomacy could bridge the impending gulf between Washington under Trump and Berlin under Merkel.
The most striking thing about Donald Trump’s future administration to date is the extraordinarily short list of people tipped to be in it. A US administration needs to appoint literally thousands of new officials. Trump at present would be hard put to find a few dozen of his supporters with real experience of government or management. The fact that he is said to be considering Sarah Palin for Interior Secretary is sufficient proof of that. Domestically, it seems likely therefore that many of his appointments will be from the world of business – with disastrous results for the area of environmental policy, and unpredictable (but certainly pro-business) ones elsewhere.
In the area of foreign and security policy, the list of Trump supporters is even shorter – almost ludicrously so. This creates a great opportunity, and two great dangers for the Trump administration and US policy. The dangers are either that he will be forced to appoint a slightly different shade of the usual Washington insiders, who will work quietly to strangle any really new initiatives, and make sure that the Trump administration conforms to the establishment strategies in support of US primacy that have led to such disasters over the past 25 years. This after all is pretty much what the Washington establishment (led by Hillary Clinton) did to President Obama and his Realist impulses, as he himself hinted in a famous series of interviews with The Atlantic Monthly earlier this year. It is highly unlikely that Trump will appoint many self-declared neo-conservatives (though the egregious Frank Gaffney has been advising him) because most of them were open in their hatred for him, and many joined Hillary Clinton; but on key issues the greater part of the Washington foreign policy establishment has been not too far from the neo-cons: witness the dozens of US diplomats who this autumn signed a letter calling on Obama to adopt a more hardline and interventionist policy against the Syrian government.
The other danger is that Trump will shun the establishment and instead appoint a bunch of aggressive, impulsive chauvinist mavericks – like himself – to run his foreign and security policy. Among the names I am thinking of here is that of Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House. However, Lt General Michael Flynn, probably the most important, able, and interesting member of Trump’s foreign and security team, should also be a cause for concern in this regard. As head of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), Flynn’s desire to focus like a laser on crushing the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and their allies (as opposed to the horribly confused and contradictory Obama administration approach to Syria in particular) made him many enemies, and contributed to his forced early retirement. So too however did his impulsive and aggressive temperament. And it is this issue of temperament that is the most worrying thing of all about Trump and his administration. The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously replied, when asked about his biggest challenge in formulating foreign policy, “Events, dear boy”. How a US President and his team react to unexpected events is one of their greatest tests, and it is above all a test of nerve, self-control and cool, well-informed judgement. These are not qualities that one has so far associated with Donald Trump.
There is a particular danger here for Russia. On the one hand, Trump himself is an admirer of President Putin, and co-operation with Russia is obviously essential if key parts of Trump’s hopes are to be put in place: co-operation against Islamist extremism above all else, and a reduction in US commitments and adventures in Europe and elsewhere. On the other hand, no-one who has worked in Washington and on US policy over the past generation can be in any doubt about the way in which obsessive fear and hatred of Russia has become a congenital part of US political and media culture. If the Trump and Putin administrations could agree on everything, there would be no problem; but there will inevitably be disagreements (Trump’s call for an end to the nuclear deal with Iran and new sanctions being a possible early example, and China a vastly greater and more dangerous later one), and there will be many people in the State Department and Pentagon working assiduously to worsen those disagreements. The risk is that the impulse of impulsive people in the Trump administration may be to swing back to the default mode of hostility to Russia.
Finally, there is the opportunity, for which we may pray. This is that – as Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, widely tipped to be Secretary of Defense has promised - Trump will return to the Realist foreign policy tradition of Henry Kissinger, and latter day exponents like General Brent Scowcroft. If he does this, then there may be a real chance to abandon the megalomaniac ambition of the past generation and return to a policy of sober assessment of America’s real interests and real power, and of sober attempts at compromise with other leading powers. Here, a name to watch is that of Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee – an unlikely choice perhaps since a Senator he was one of very few Republicans to seek compromise with the Democrats not only on the Iran deal but on tackling climate change; but on the other hand one of Trump’s very few supporters in the Republican leadership. If Senator Corker is appointed Secretary of State, I at least will sleep somewhat easier in my bed – more easily, as far as foreign policy is concerned, than I would have under a Clinton presidency.
What should be the lessons of this for Russia’s policy? For the reasons set out above, I would argue that a certain caution is in order. The euphoria over Trump’s election is natural, given Hillary Clinton’s bitter hostility to Russia, but if Trump actually makes good on his campaign promises concerning Iran and still more China (he said that he would both enforce a drastic reduction in China’s exports to the USA and increase confrontation with China in the South China Sea – a potentially cataclysmic combination) then Russia will not be able to go along with this.
Russian policymakers should also keep in mind that Trump will face another election in four years’ time. Not only does it seem highly questionable that his economic policies will actually succeed in restoring prosperity to the US middle classes, and there is a high likelihood of greatly increased domestic racial tensions, but in the meantime the Trump administration will face a constant stream of extremely damaging leaks from a bureaucracy – especially in the foreign and security field – bitterly hostile to Trump and everything he stands for. The risk for Russia therefore is of a Democrat administration coming to power in 2021, as ferociously determined to tear up reconciliation with Russia and any other achievements of the Trump administration as the Republicans have been to tear up the achievements of the Obama administration.
The Russian government should therefore keep the long term interests of Russia and the European continent firmly in mind, and not allow their new relationship with Washington further to erode its old relationship with the EU, and more particularly with Germany. On the contrary, they should use the new relationship with Washington to rebuild the relationship with western Europe. To adapt the words of a famous Hollywood film (on a rather different subject, but never mind), “Shaking hands with President Trump may make you feel very, very good, but the German-Russian relationship is forever.”
On the one hand, the Merkel government detests and fears Trump, seeing him (with good reason) as an ally of Alternative fuer Deutschland, the French National Front, and other populist nationalist parties which threaten to bring down the established European democratic parties and destroy the European Union. On the other hand, they will hopefully want to use a Trump administration to reduce tensions with Russia and seek an agreement over Ukraine. Moscow should therefore take great care to consult with and include Berlin (and Paris, insofar as the horribly dysfunctional condition of French politics and policy allows this) in any agreements reached with Washington under Trump.
The Trump administration also provides a magnificent opportunity for Moscow to revive – hopefully with Washington’s support – Prime Minister Medvedev’s idea of a European Security Council and architecture dedicated to preventing crises like Ukraine from occurring again, and creating the basis for long-term co-operation between Russia and the EU. It might be that skilful Russian diplomacy could bridge the impending gulf between Washington under Trump and Berlin under Merkel. That would be a truly extraordinary development given the experience of the past generation, but then we live in extraordinary times.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and the author among other books of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (second edition 2012) and co-author with John Hulsman of Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (2006).