Why do the Kremlin and Trump speak different political languages?
U.S. President Donald Trump remains the main global newsmaker, and much of the news that concerns him has to do with Russia. Forecasts of how Russian-U.S. relations will develop under Trump keep swinging from high hopes for radical improvements to suspicions that the new U.S. president has chosen a stern approach towards Moscow.
In reality, all these hypotheses are equally probable for the simple reason that the new U.S. administration is probing its way in foreign policy fairly chaotically, by trial and error. In his attempts to adhere to promises made during his presidential campaign, Trump keeps running into political or legal hurdles and having to maneuver around them. As far as Russia, Trump has faced strong and highly coordinated resistance from the Washington elite to the very idea of improving relations with Moscow, and so he has prudently backed down.
This is not to say that Trump has given up on his initial plans for better relations, but it also does not mean that he intends to push ahead with them. Most likely, his behavior will continue to be spontaneous.
More improvisational than planned
Trump's extensive 1990 interview to Playboy has recently been much quoted, and when he was asked whether there was a master plan to his deal making, the billionaire replied, “I'm much more improvisational than people might think.”
Trump's upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to take place anytime before the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, but it could influence his personal mood, even though it will hardly change the institutional framework in which the American president operates.
Regarding Russia, there is one radical difference between Trump and his predecessors, but also one important thing in common. The difference is that Trump is absolutely not interested in changing Russia, or any other country, and trying to set it on the ’right’ path. The thing in common is that he views Russia as an instrument for reaching more important goals.
This was not the case during the Cold War, when the USSR's very existence influenced Washington's agenda on the international arena. The Soviet Union's disintegration turned Moscow from a systemic opponent to nothing more than just another capital city. Washington's interest in Russia was mainly caused by the nuclear arsenal still in its possession and by U.S. politicians' desire to turn the country into a model democracy.
The illusion that Russia could be put onto the democratic track quickly disappeared, and the nuclear warheads remained at Moscow's disposal. Other than that, the U.S. kept itself busy with new global priorities. Washington would use Russia whenever it could be of use, or would try to restrain Moscow whenever it was getting in the way. However, the general attitude of Russia as merely an instrument persisted.
Trump sees Russia just as insignificant, but his interests lie much deeper, and he appears to perceive global politics as an instrument of transforming the rules of international trade. Trump's idea of the `right’ way to do foreign trade harks back from the 19th century. He emphasizes the importance of avoiding a trade deficit at all costs, and believes that the U.S. needs to achieve and maintain a positive trade balance with all countries.
Trump thinks that domestic affairs are of primary importance, and creating an appropriate system of international trade is the key to serving the country's domestic needs, and everything else is only important inasmuch as it can help achieve this goal.
Historical turning point
On the one hand, the West is now in the process of doing away with the economic rules of the game it once established, because it has started losing at this game. On the other hand, the role of the state is coming to the fore; that same state which was all but dumped just a decade ago for allegedly losing the competition for influence to supranational corporations and other cross-border factors.
Trump is a paradoxical child of this major turning point in history. Just like the key players in his administration, the president postulates zero intolerance of the state's interference in the economy, advocates economic freedom and low taxes. At the same time, Trump promotes the state's active protectionist role, and he wants to see the state involved more in regulating how business works, and is intent on channeling the state's efforts in the ’right’ direction.
What role will Moscow play in this process? Probably a rather modest one because Russia is not a major global player in economy and trade, with the exception of the raw materials market.
There is a risk, however, of the situation becoming dangerous. Russia historically uses its military-political might in compensating for the absence of other levers of influence. The Kremlin treats geopolitics very seriously, believing it to be a topic of fundamental importance.
The U.S. under Trump is likely to make geopolitics subservient to the domestic economic agenda. In other words, Washington may start using military-political solutions to economic problems without hesitation, should such steps be deemed expedient. This asymmetry of approaches, coupled with the two countries' nuclear arsenals and the obvious escalation of the overall military standoff, may result in Washington and Moscow losing a common language.
Moscow's potential deal with Trump, whose expedience has been discussed rather actively over the past two months, should be about working out common rules of conduct rather than about dividing spheres of global influence.
Someone needs to explain to the new U.S. president, who is driven by mercantilism, that such a straightforward approach will not work in international relations. Only then will it become clear what opportunities Russia has in the brave new world, which will come regardless of whether Trump remains in power for four years, eight years, or just nine months.
First published in Russian by Gazeta.ru
The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.