Trump’s unconventional foreign policy might improve US-Russia relations post-World War II, but will this honeymoon last or will the president elect eventually fall into the trap of Putin’s aggressive ambitions? Robert Amsterdam reports.
When Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States on 20 January, he will inherit a full plate of complex foreign-policy problems, ranging from Syria to Ukraine to the South China Sea. Partly because so few were prepared for the outcome of the election, and partly because of the controversial statements Trump has made, there has been no small amount of panic and hyperbole over what to expect.
Analysts have been decrying the dangers posed by the Trump Doctrine, supposedly based on policies favouring isolationism, protectionism and an unsettling ‘America-first’ approach to foreign affairs. I believe these projections are exaggerated and that Trump’s foreign policy will be much more fluid than anticipated, but we are still potentially looking at some fundamental, tectonic shifts in the post-Second World War international system.
Firstly, at the centre of every foreign-policy discussion is the nature of Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. During the campaign, Trump and Putin exchanged statements of mutual admiration, much to the horror of hawks on both sides of the aisle. Kremlin officials say they were in contact with the Trump campaign before the election, which is troubling given the accusations of state-sponsored hacking and email leaks.
Does this mean US-Russia relations will suddenly be repaired, giving Putin a free hand in Europe and a proxy in the White House? Not so fast. Relations were already in a terrible state before this election began. Obama seriously misread Putin, dismissing Russia as a ‘regional power’ that could safely be ignored. Then, of course, Russia invaded Ukraine and entered the Syrian conflict, catching Washington off guard.
The Obama administration also believed personal sanctions on Putin’s inner circle would put off aggression, but they have only consolidated his power. Russian officials are practically waiting in line to be sanctioned, as it is seen as a sure-fire path for career advancement. It’s been a disastrous policy that has set Putin up for a win-win in this election. It became clear months before the US election took place that Putin would emerge as the biggest winner, though not for reasons you might think.
If Clinton had won, Putin would have had the ideal enemy, justifying his portrayal of Russia as a besieged fortress in need of a strong leader. With Trump, he presumably will achieve a paradigm shift towards a relationship couched in realism, which could re-orient relations into a new framework which benefits Russia.
Putin thrives on instability and confrontation without resolution — we’ve seen this for years in the ‘frozen conflicts’. Trump’s rise has created chaos, disruption and uncertainty among traditional institutions — which all play into Putin’s preference to disaggregate the West. His goal has always been to achieve an international normalisation, acceptance, or tolerance of Russian aggression. But it would be highly unlikely for this brief honeymoon to last. Putin believes Trump will respect his concept of ‘sphere of influence’, though he may quickly start redefining the boundaries of that sphere. One would assume Putin will move quickly to test the boundaries of the new US relationship. Baltic countries could be facing legitimate threats of aggression.
Eventually Trump will be drawn into a trap in which confrontation with Russia is unavoidable, and we’ll slip back into the traditional hostility of US-Russia relations, where Putin is most comfortable. This could come sooner rather than later, as Putin is presiding over a rapidly decaying and fractious system under internal assault. In mid-November, we saw the firing and arrest of the Minister of Economic Development, Alexei Ulyukayev, who was accused of seeking a $2 million bribe from oil giant Rosneft. His fall signals another clan war being ramped up within the ruling elite.
While much of the Trump doctrine will depend on his appointments, there’s no doubt that transatlantic relations will be put under stress. Theresa May was unfortunately not the first foreign leader to get a phone call with Trump — Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu were both ahead of her. His first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader was with Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
We shouldn’t be surprised if Trump’s foreign policy shifts away from his campaign statements. As he has said, ‘everything is negotiable’. But his determination to reduce the US global footprint and restrain its involvement in foreign interventions is likely to open up new challenges and opportunities that the UK, among others, will have to rise to and solve on their own.
Given Washington’s poor track record of past interventionist policies, it will be very interesting to see the results of a new approach.