It has been three years since Russia’s stunning annexation of Crimea. It is the worst kept secret in Washington that the new administration of Donald Trump would like to turn the page on the US-Russian hostility that followed, in a transactional effort to remake US foreign policy.
At the heart of Trump’s Jacksonian nationalism is his transactional view of the world, a state of mind that is confounding allies and enemies alike. Unsentimental in the extreme, the President is singularly unimpressed by alliances in both Europe and Asia (held in almost sacred awe by the discredited US foreign policy establishment) that he senses may be past their sell-by dates if they don’t deliver in terms of immediate American interests.
In the same vein, the Trump White House has not let a long history of US-Russian bad blood get in the way of his desire to pursue closer ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, if doing so – and despite Putin’s well-deserved reputation for thuggery – serves American goals. And oddly enough – for all that readers of this column know I am no friend of the current President – I have absolutely no problem with his more transactional approach to foreign policy, as it amounts to a breath of fresh air, rightly questioning intellectual sacred cows that ought really to have been thought thorough again following the debacle of the Iraq war.
The problem with Trump’s outreach to Russia is not that he is attempting to work with a far from savoury (alright let’s admit it, Putin is my favourite Bond villain) partner to further American interests; it’s that he will receive almost nothing for his bold efforts. And getting a good deal – which is largely the basis of Trump’s popularity and narrative – is, after all, the point of the whole exercise.
But what does America get from such a shift in its foreign policy? Isis is already on its last legs, with Mosul in Iraq – by far the largest city the caliphate controls – set to fall later this year. Its capital (Raqqa in Syria) will surely be next. The key strategic point remains what it has always been: in both Iraq and Syria disaffected Sunnis must be included in the governing process, or there will surely be another – and perhaps even more hideous – vampire-like rising of radical Sunni Islam, following on from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Isis. And absolutely none of this is affected in any material way by whether Trump and Putin reach an understanding or not.
Nor is there an obvious economic reward flowing on from a rapprochement with the Kremlin, as there would be, say, if Trump and Xi Jinping (another strongman nationalist) reached a broad accord. Russia is an ageing, corrupt gas station with nuclear weapons, with its economy wholly precariously tethered to the spot price of oil and natural gas. Russia’s economy is merely the size of Texas. The country is a great power in decline, not one on the rise. There is simply no economic pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for Trump here, either.
As for Russia and the US more broadly sharing intelligence and in some sort of coordinated way working together to combat global terrorism, that will happen in any event, if it suits the eminently rational Putin’s interests, and will not happen if it does not. Reaching a Grand Bargain has nothing to do with what amounts to a rational second order decision the Kremlin will make, based on an evaluation of its own interests.
So, closer ties with Putin do not dramatically change the facts on the ground over Isis in Syria, facilitate a new economic renaissance for the US (as such a deal with China or, better, India, would do), or cement a joint front in the global war against terror. In other words, at the end of Trump’s transactional approach to Russia, there’s nothing there. In hard-headed realist terms, there simply is no deal available that makes calling Nato into question, or abandoning the embattled (but getting better) Ukrainian government of President Poroshenko, worth it.
For on its own self-interested terms, this dreamed-of alliance simply makes no sense, in terms of America’s basic interests. A declining Russia simply does not offer the US anything remotely strategically attractive enough to ignore Russian adventurism in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. By all means, let’s move away from the gormless era when American neoconservatives and liberal hawks fought wars that had almost nothing to do with direct American interests. But any cursory glance at those interests shows that this putative deal is merely intellectual fool’s gold.