Not long ago, it was widely agreed the world was better off when Washington and Moscow got along. During the dark days of the Cold War, people of every political persuasion were unnerved when relations between the nuclear powers frayed. So it is curious so few have applauded the repeated assurances given by the presidents of the United States and Russia that they are looking for ways to cooperate. Given the depths to which US-Russia relations fell under Obama, Clinton and Kerry — at the end, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson called them “a group of embittered and dimwitted foreign policy losers” — the arrival of a new American president signalling an interest in improving things ought to have been met with some relief and hope for the future.
Instead, we’ve seen quite the opposite — sometimes absurdly so. The “scientists” at the Doomsday Clock are so alarmed over Donald Trump’s election and the “geopolitical turbulence” he has caused — “the current political situation in the US is a particular concern,” intoned theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss — that they have moved the hands of their clock to two and half minutes before midnight, i.e. the apocalypse. According to these folks, we’re living in the most perilous times since 1953. Forget the last 64 years of nuclear brinkmanship, great power proxy wars, and revolutionary upheavals: Donald Trump is worse.
Maybe someone can figure out how to use psychology’s Panic Disorder Severity Scale to measure the mental condition of those purporting to lead public opinion. Right now, it has to be close to “midnight”. Meanwhile, some therapeutics …
A return to substance and sense
The leaders of the United States and Russia have spoken twice since Trump’s electoral victory. The first telephone conversation took place on November 14 a week after election day, the second on January 28 as Trump concluded his first week in office. Both conversations were followed by official “readouts” from the White House and the Kremlin. The leaders have also commented publicly on each other. So where do relations between them now stand?
The view from the Kremlin, officially anyway, is that both sides are ready “to make active joint efforts to stabilise and develop Russia-US cooperation on a constructive, equitable and mutually beneficial basis”. Same for the White House: “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair”. As Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign relations committee in Russia’s upper chamber of parliament, said of the second phone call, “The conversation was supposed to return substance and sense to the Russian-American dialogue. By all appearances that’s what happened”.
Did they discuss specifics? Since the call lasted approximately an hour, it’s safe to assume they did. In their readouts, both sides suggested the main topic of discussion was ISIS. In the Russian account, the leaders spoke about “establishing real coordination of actions” aimed not just at ISIS but also “other terrorist groups in Syria”. The US account said the two sides discussed “mutual cooperation in defeating ISIS” and were hopeful they could “move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern”. The US account mentioned Syria only in the broader context of “working together to achieve more peace throughout the world including Syria”.
After both conversations, the published Russian account was considerably longer than the US one. The Russian readout of the second conversation was some ten paragraphs in length compared to just eight lines in the US account. What that tells us is that the Kremlin has been more anxious than the White House to set out an agenda, while the White House is moving cautiously. In addition to combatting Islamist terrorism, the Kremlin’s agenda includes “the situation in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, strategic stability and non-proliferation, the situation with Iran’s nuclear programme, and the Korean Peninsula issue.” Also “rebuilding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between the two countries’ business communities”. The White House surely agrees that all these other matters need to be addressed too, but what Trump is doing is making it clear that defeating ISIS is his priority and the sine qua non for talking about anything else.
Putin likely got the point. As Fyodor Lukyanov of the Russian journal Global Affairs told NPR, “Everything we know about Trump is very, very clear. He’ll never do anything just without a return. He believes in deals.” Lukyanov speculated there was a grand bargain in the works. Look for the centrepiece to be joint action against ISIS.
Should Trump be dealing with Putin?
Negotiating in the mutual interest has been a principle of diplomacy since forever. So it is unusual to encounter those who profess to want peace being opposed to the new US President aspiring to a better relationship with Putin than his predecessor had — and thereby possibly find solutions to the grave international problems of the day. There are at least three explanations for the opposition.
The first is that many just don’t like Trump being the leader of the United States. When he declared for the presidency, mainstream opinion wrote him off as an affront to the office he was seeking, a frivolous candidate without a hope of attracting serious support. Many remain in shock that he not only won the Republican nomination over a posse of senators and governors, but also sank the unsinkable Hillary Clinton. They cringe at the rough and sometimes intemperate language he uses, put the worst complexion on the policy proposals he is pursuing, and are convinced he is so unhinged as to be a danger to the nation and the world.
Second, they believe he is some kind of Manchurian candidate who will sell out the United States to the evil forces in the Kremlin. Many of Trump’s critics are fixated on the notion that what he has said about Putin is evidence he must somehow be in Putin’s pocket — whether by design or because he is too simple-minded to realize it. For proof they cite the “praise” he has heaped on Putin. No right-minded person, they believe, would be so laudatory of a Russian leader who has established a virtual dictatorship, dealt ruthlessly and sometimes terminally with political opponents, and used brute force to take territory from a neighbouring state and intimidate others.
But just how laudatory has Trump been, really? In the 18 December 2015 interview with MSNBC which consitutes the original proof of his mistaken attitude towards the Russian leader, Trump said of Putin that “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country”. This is less praise for Putin than it is an odious comparison to Obama — the actual reason one suspects those on the left found Trump’s remarks so objectionable. When asked, in the same interview, whether he would condemn Putin’s brutal tactics, Trump replied “Sure, absolutely”. Why then deal with this guy? “A lot of good things could happen with Russia if we get along with Russia and if they respect us. Putin doesn’t respect our president.” On another occasion Trump said, “I don’t know Putin but wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along actually with the other country? They want to get ISIS. We want to get ISIS. We’d put everything together, we knock the hell out of ISIS.” As he has said many times since, Trump hopes he can have a good relationship with Putin but “who knows”. “Maybe yes, maybe no”.
Which brings us to the third reason Trump is so disparaged — not forgetting his critics are hardly the majority considering he received the support of half the US electorate and has admirers throughout the world. What really worries the smart set is that Trump will succeed where Obama failed, both in building the cooperative relationships the United States needs to tackle international problems and in taking the necessary actions. “Wouldn’t it be a positive thing, Trump has asked, if we actually got along with countries?” Obama will go down in history as one of the worst foreign policy presidents the United States has ever had because he never established a rapport with other leaders and failed ignominiously on every important policy front. Obama alienated both allies (Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy, Hollande, Harper, Abe, Netanyahu, Abdullah, al Sisi) and adversaries (Putin, Xi, Khamenei, Assad, Kim). Why would this “leader of the free world” have followers, given their widely shared view of how naive he was in his assessments, incompetent in policy-making, irresolute in taking action, and condescending to all. Their memoirs won’t be kind to him.
Obama could sound like a statesman at times, but his behaviour was that of a factional leader. In his final weeks, he showed none of the deference which outgoing presidents traditionally extend their successors to help them ease into their own foreign policies. Instead, Obama took steps to make it as difficult as possible for Trump to do so. Obama allowed passage of the first-ever UN Security Council resolution declaring all Israeli settlements post-1967 illegal including those in East Jerusalem; he provided the Palestinian Authority a grant of $221 million (on the morning of Trump’s inauguration; it was later blocked); he ended the decades-long US policy of allowing Cuban refugees to acquire legal residency if they made it to Florida in their rickety little boats; and he issued the UN Green Climate Fund a cheque for $500 million.
An early test
But the worst was Obama’s attempt to compromise future relations between Trump and Putin. On December 29, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and their families, a total of 96 people, and placed sanctions on Russia’s domestic security (FSB) and military intelligence (GRU) agencies. The two reasons he offered were “Russia’s aggressive harassment of US officials and cyber operations aimed at the US election”. His statement, however, discussed only the second charge, which in turn drew all the media attention. Neither was a convincing explanation for the most draconian set of expulsions the US had undertaken since George W. Bush expelled some 50 Russians for espionage in 2001 and Ronald Reagan 55 in 1986, either as to substance or timing. Russian security and intelligence agencies have been harassing US diplomats in Russia since Soviet times, and the US intelligence community had conspicuously failed to reach a consensus on whether Russian hackers did anything more than simply take advantage of the lax email practices of the Democratic National Committee and its presidential candidate.
Since expulsions typically meet with almost instant retaliation, Obama surely expected US-Russia relations to descend into a deepfreeze which would have made any Trump-Putin rapprochement politically impossible for at least several months. As it happened, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov expected just that. “Of course, we cannot leave such mischievous tricks without a response … Reciprocity is the law of diplomacy and of international relations.” He is reported to have recommended that 31 American diplomats be expelled from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and two US facilities there closed. Unexpectedly, Putin decided against any immediate response. “While we reserve the right to take reciprocal measures, we’re not going to downgrade ourselves to the level of irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy’”, Putin said. “In our future steps on the way toward the restoration of Russia-United States relations, we will proceed from the policy pursued by the administration” of Donald J. Trump. The President-elect tweeted back: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
There was more. Ten days earlier, on December 20, the Obama administration had placed sanctions on 15 Russian individuals and companies “in response to Russia’s unlawful occupation of Crimea and continued aggression in Ukraine”; and ten days later on January 9 Washington blacklisted five members of the Putin administration for “human rights abuses” including two who were close to Putin. All this in the weeks between Trump’s election and inauguration.
Trump and Putin have agreed to meet, but no date has yet been set and it is likely still a few months off. It is not just the when and where that have to be worked out, however. Both sides understand there is more at stake in this particular US-Russia summit than in any since the first Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in November 1985. Both will be preparing with great care, with subordinates meeting and probing for where agreement might be reached on the elements of a grand bargain. Both also have an incentive not to delay. Trump wants to defeat ISIS, Putin wants to work out a modus vivendi in Europe that rids him of the economic sanctions, and both have important elections looming — Russia holds presidential elections in March 2018 and the United States holds the next round of congressional elections in November 2018. Putin can run again and is expected to do so, but he will face opposition in the streets if not on the ballot. A much improved relationship with Washington and the economic boost that would follow the ending of sanctions would help mute some of his critics. Trump would dearly like stronger majorities in the House and Senate to achieve his domestic goals.
We may not be looking at peace in our time, but it surely won’t be the apocalypse.