Assessing Donald Trump’s statements and policy proposals is like trying to hit an erratically moving target. His narrative changes in sometimes spectacular ways according to what suits him best at any given moment.
However one facet of Trump’s narrative hasn’t changed at all. His unhidden, hero-worshipping sympathy for Vladimir Putin abides -- Trump believes the Russian president “has been a leader far more than our president has been," and he expresses his readiness, indeed eagerness, to seek a rapprochement with Russia on foreign policy issues should he become the next president of the United States.
Trump took his enticement of Putin to new levels during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, when he didn’t even bother to respond to an invitation by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- a Putin foe -- to meet on the sidelines of the session.
As much as any of his policy proposals, Trump’s infatuation with Putin may well be the defining feature of the foreign-policy package that Trump is trying to sell to U.S. voters. Little wonder that in the first presidential debate Hillary Clinton didn’t fail to attack her Republican opponent for his attitude toward Putin.
Trump has an extensive business background, and it is not unreasonable to think that he is envisioning a Russia policy akin to the power-sharing (market-allocation) agreements that firms participating in an oligopoly often concoct among themselves.
The analogy is all the more relevant as the world moves away from the quasi-monopoly situation that prevailed in the aftermath of the Cold War,with the United States acting as the uncontested hegemon. The new arrangement in global politics resembles an oligopoly, one in which U.S. supremacy is increasingly challenged and constrained by a few rising global players (as well as by war fatigue at home). This state of affairs seems to have induced Trump to conceive of an oligopolistic, power-sharing deal with Putin aimed both at avoiding competition between the United States and Russia and at keeping other rising powers at bay.
Trump has tried to advertise his prospective rapprochement with Russia on two basic grounds. Firstly, to unite forces in the fight against ISIS: “Wouldn’t it be great if the United States and Russia got along, combined, knocked out Isis, maybe did other positive things?” Secondly, to make Russia lose interest in siding with China: “Don’t ever let China and Russia get together."
Looked at closely, however, a Trump-Putin collusion would run against U.S. strategic interests.
Failures in oligopoly
Take the fight against ISIS first. It is clear by now that coordinated U.S.-Russia military operations against ISIS -- meager though such coordination may be -- have been playing into the hands of Putin. The United States has indeed been carrying out a great deal of the fight against ISIS, while Russian forces have concentrated at their leisure on defending the bastions of Bashar al Assad’s regime and on dislodging moderate members of the anti-Assad insurgency from the areas under their control. Collusion between Russia and the United States amid the Syrian turmoil -- as called for by Trump -- would only compound the flaws inherent to this allocation of tasks.
As regards an eventual entente between Russia and China, which Trump claims he would try to prevent, coaxing Putin’s Russia would not prevent such an entente. Instead it would place Putin at the center of negotiations regarding East Asian conflicts.
Here is why.
Russia’s strongman has been strengthening ties both with China and its main rivals, a move that may place him in a position to become the mediator in the conflicts that are shaking the East Asian region.
A recent manifestation of Putin’s closer ties with China is the fact that the joint naval drills that are carried out every year by China and Russia since 2012 were conducted in 2016 for the first time in the South China Sea, which is at the center of a dispute between China on the one hand, and its neighbors and the United States on the other.
The location of the 2016 naval drills has been seen as a manifestation of sympathy, though on the part of Russia toward China's claims over those waters -- though not an endorsement. At the same time, Russia has kept and even strengthened its ties with nations at loggerheads with China -- first and foremost with Vietnam, to which Russia continues to be the main weapons supplier. In the same vein, relations between Russia and Japan are warming up as discussions on the decades-long dispute over the Kuril Islands are underway.
All of this means that if and when the nations involved in the dispute over the South China Sea decide to carry out negotiations aimed at the settlement of that dispute, they will likely look at Russia as an eventual broker.
A Trump-styled rapprochement between the United States and Russia would place Putin of mediator between China and the United States, and as such, he would be able to influence the turn that the quarrels and disagreements between those two countries may take.
The result is that it is Russia, and not the United States, which would play the role of balancer in the East Asian region.
No less worrisome, Trump has promised to revise downward the U.S. commitment to defend Europe through NATO, a move that would considerably enhance Putin’s ability to advance his pawns -- and his troops -- in that region.
A reduced American presence in Europe, with the ensuing weakening of its European allies, would put at stake not only the fate of Europe’s post-World War II democratic architecture, but also the U.S. ability to play an effective role in international relations worldwide. America would no longer be able to count on a robust democratic Europe as an ally in dealing with the threats and crises that proliferate in today’s world.
Giving Putin a hand
In summary, an entente between Trump and Putin would help the latter to attain three of his most cherished foreign-policy objectives: to consolidate the Syrian regime and enhance Russia’s standing in the Middle East; to make Russia the preferred partner in the East Asian region; and to expand Russia’s sway in Eastern and Central Europe. This is far from an alluring scenario for the U.S.
In an oligopolistic arrangement, the parties may pursue competing objectives. Some may see the deal as a form of preserving turf (market share) that is under threat by competitors. Others may, on the contrary, conceive the agreement as a tactical move destined to surreptitiously weaken and ultimately replace the oligopoly’s dominant partner. Trump may see collusion with Putin as a means to achieve the former kind of objective (i.e. preserving U.S. purview in world affairs); Putin wants to edge out the United States as the leading world power. Putin would call the shots should such a collusion ever see the light of the day.