Trump Is Wrong About Russia, but He Does Get One Thing Right
We may never know who hacked 20,000 Democratic National Committee email messages, or why they were made public. But we know a lot more now about where our two presidential candidates stand on Russia.
No matter whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump prevails at the polls in November: Either way we’re in for a continuation, if not an intensification, of the confrontation that now defines the U.S.–Russia relations.
This big chill comes with costs, given the numerous interests Washington and Moscow share. Straight off the top, we can expect continued resistance among American policy planners to cooperative solutions to the Syria and Ukraine conflicts. These are pressing; negotiation is the only way out in both cases.
Clinton, long noted as a foreign policy hawk, is entirely upfront about her view of Russia. Having just accused Trump of his supposedly cozy ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, she has effectively declared talking to Moscow, to say nothing of any form of détente, unpatriotic.
What was once called “red-baiting” now amounts to Kremlin-baiting. It was a primitive position back in the 1950s, and it’s a primitive position now.
As to Trump, campaign politics have more or less assigned him a misguided Russia policy. The few statements he has made on relations with Moscow hint at a greater willingness to cooperate with Moscow, but they’re no more than wisps of a thought-through stance.
A Trump victory would shift this vacuum from the campaign trail into the White House. From his Fifth Avenue triplex Trump insists he can talk to the Russians, but how vigorously and effectively would President Trump resist the Pentagon’s policy hawks?
Not very is the logical answer, at least for now.
It has been clear for some time that President Obama’s legacy on the foreign side is going to include a badly bifurcated policy establishment. In Syria and Ukraine and across the Pacific, those favoring negotiation in behalf of common goals are regularly countered by those who put confrontation and military options first.
By all appearances, the two sides are positioning themselves for advantage as the administration changes. And with unusual clarity, the division is now personified.
On one side, Secretary of State Kerry energetically pursues cooperation with Russia on the crises in Syria and Ukraine. He also encourages Asian nations to talk to China and avoid confrontation on questions of sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction in the East and South China Seas.
On the other side stands Ashton Carter, a hawk across the board. Since last spring, the defense secretary has focused on advancing U.S. and NATO closer to Russia’s borders while making unprecedented tours of Asia to encourage the Philippines, Vietnam, and others to hang tough with the Chinese.
Most recently, Kerry negotiated an agreement with Putin and Sergei Lavrov , his foreign minister, to cooperate on the ground in Syria by way of shared logistics and intelligence. But when Kerry brought a draft pact back to Washington, Carter reportedly altered the terms to make it all but certain Moscow would reject it. Kerry’s effort now lies in limbo.
Here’s the take-home: Hillary Clinton lines up more or less congruently with Carter and the Pentagon. Donald Trump, famously the dealmaker cognizant of the other side’s interests, might come over as an heir to Kerry—if only he had a policy framework one could actually analyze.
Clinton was closely identified with the Obama administration’s noted “reset” of relations with Moscow when it was attempted in 2009. But as the effort soured the then-secretary of state distanced herself from it, and her hostility toward Russia—and specifically Putin—grew.
Two years ago, she prompted an uproar when she compared the Russian leader with Hitler. And she’s four square behind NATO’s recent moves eastward, which instantly (and predictably) provoked Moscow. One can’t expect a President H.R.C. to improve the miserable tone much.
With the NATO summit in Warsaw last month, it starts to look as if Cold War II is official policy. Clinton’s decision to cast Trump as an outlier for his willingness to talk to Putin is nothing if not a confirmation of this grim reality.
For his part, Trump’s a victim of (1) his own imprudence, (2) a key mistranslation, (3) his lack of substantive policies and (4) an anti–Russian tone prevalent among Americans for the past several years, notably, since the crisis in Ukraine flared in 2014.
Trump set the ball rolling when he asserted during the second Republican debate last September that he would “get along with Putin.” The Russian leader appeared to compound matters when he was subsequently quoted calling Trump “a brilliant and talented person.”
That was a regrettable mistranslation. As any Russian-language scholar will tell you, Putin simply observed that Trump “has a vivid personality”—a hands-off assessment no one can argue with. Nonetheless, we now come out the other end assuming a full-dress “bromance” between two people who have never met.
Trump’s other miscalculation concerns NATO. Last year he asserted that the Cold War alliance is “obsolete.” On the eve of his nomination in Cleveland, he told The New York Times the U.S. shouldn’t necessarily defend another NATO member if it hasn’t paid its fair share—a straight-out contradiction of NATO’s founding principle.
Trump is far from alone in suggesting NATO needs a rethink. Demanding that other NATO members carry more weight is nothing new, either.
The longstanding reality is that West Europeans aren’t as keen on NATO’s mission as Washington is; East Europeans are but can’t afford proportionate contributions. This leaves it to Washington to carry the ball and pay for it, too.
Not many political leaders are willing to bring this up. Trump’s miscalculation is his clumsy articulation of a position that is at least arguable. That this proves provocative in an atmosphere of mounting East–West tension is his misfortune.
With Hillary Clinton, it’s what-you-see-you-get on Russia. But what you see is wrong and holds no promise of improvement.
It’s hard to see what we’d get with Trump in the White House. Absent a coherent policy, it’s unlikely he would go to the mat in defense of détente. That leaves Ash Carter’s successor to prevail—either way—in the policy argument Obama leaves behind.