Given the high degree of partisan divide following the US election, a discomfiting fact is that Donald Trump is likely to espouse many responsible positions in his role as president, even if he can’t make the case for them himself. This confusing state of affairs has not become obvious yet. But it is inevitable, and we will get used to it. A case in point is the current confusion about Russia.
Trump campaigned throughout the last year and a half on a promise to roll back the menacing stance the US has adopted towards Russia since at least the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine in 2014. He never mentioned the much larger issue that lies behind it, the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russia’s southern borders, but that is likely what he meant.
In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton was equally clear throughout that she intended to increase the pressure on the Russian federation. She now blames Putin (and FBI director James Comey) for her loss.
As it happens, Mark Landler, White House correspondent of The New York Times, earlier this year gave us a very good account of her foreign policy views. Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power (Random House 2016) was written at a time when Clinton was concerned to burnish her credentials as a hawk in anticipation of the general election. The climax of the book is worth quoting at length. It comes in September 2014, when Obama invites a dozen foreign policy experts to a dinner at the White House that has been “planned down to the minute”: an hour of discussion on the Islamic State; another on Russia, and, in particular, the proposal to supply Javelin antitank missiles to Ukrainian troops then fighting the Russian army.
As the second hour began, Obama… threw down a startling gauntlet.
“Will somebody tell me, What’s the American stake in Ukraine?” he asked his guests.
Strobe Talbott [Deputy Secretary of State for seven years under President Clinton], who spent much of his professional life studying the Soviet threat during the Cold War, was slack-jawed. Preserving the territorial integrity of states liberated from the Soviet Union was an article in faith in Washington, at least for those of Clinton’s generation, who had watched the Soviets invade Hungary in 1956. Talbott argued that the West couldn’t simply stand by while Russia had its way with one of its neighbors. Stephen Hadley, who had been George W. Bush’s national adviser, echoed him. “Well, I see it somewhat differently than you do,” Obama replied. “My concern is it will be a provocation and it’ll trigger a Russian escalation that we’re not prepared to match.” That was a legitimate concern, Talbott granted, but not a reason to give Russia a free pass. “Having known Hillary for a long time,” he told me [Landler wrote],”I’m pretty sure she would have seen the invasion of Ukraine in a different way, mainly as a threat to the peace of Europe.”
A year and a day after that dinner, Talbott’s assumption was borne out. Standing on a stage of the Brookings Institution, of which he is president, Talbott introduced Clinton for the first major foreign policy speech of her 2016 presidential campaign. During a question-and-answer period afterward, she was asked how the West could put more pressure on Vladimir Putin. The United States, Clinton said, needed to dial up the sanctions and bring other pressure to bear. Though she didn’t specify it that day, her aides said that would include providing defensive weapons to the Ukrainians…
Clinton wasn’t just talking about guns and butter. Washington, she said, urgently needed a new mindset to deal with an adversary that was going to plague the United States for years to come. It wasn’t so much new as back to the future: The White House would have to recruit old Soviet specialists – “and I’m looking right at you, Strobe Talbott,” she said – to dust off their playbooks and devise new policies for fighting Russian aggression. Like the Soviets, the Russians planned “to stymie and confront and to undermine American power whenever and wherever they can.”
On this and many other issues, Landler writes, Obama and Clinton were the product of the experiences of their very different childhoods. She grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago, the daughter of a conservative Methodist businessman. Obama grew up in Hawaii, the son of a single mother who moved with him to Indonesia in fourth grade. That, and his “Kenyan roots,” created “a carapace of suspicion,” Landler writes. “Clinton viewed her country from the inside out; Obama from the outside in.” Maybe so, but Trump, who is mentioned twice, fleetingly, in the book, is president-elect.
Obama’s own instincts have served him well enough in foreign policy – in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But the two secretaries of state he appointed, both of them frustrated presidential candidates, have gone on pursuing the agenda of enlarging the NATO military alliance devise by Bill Clinton, which they inherited intact from George W. Bush. This is, of course, the deepest source of Russian’s grievance at the United States – they thought they had received assurances from James Baker, Secretary of State to George H. W. Bush, that there would be no expansion east if Germany was permitted to re-unite under the NATO banner. But the enlargement of the alliance that began in 1997 with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic admitted to membership, that precipitated a short war in Georgia in 2008, and another in Ukraine in 2014, is still going forward, zombie-like, in the present day.
NATO enlargement never became an issue in the presidential campaign. In a ten-part “Blueprint for Donald Trump to Fix Relations with Russia,” national security expert Graham Allison, former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, goes as far as he dares. “NATO is the greatest alliance in history and played an essential role in America’s Cold War victory. But today it stands in need of substantial reform.” Its expansion is not mentioned.
Leaders of the United States are henceforth going to have to become accustomed once again to living in a multi-polar world. That won’t be easy to explain, but Trump is going to have to try. Here is Graham Allison again, this time on the likelihood of war with China, from his article last year in The Atlantic, “The Thucydides Trap” (soon to be a book). He is reflecting on the vision of China’s role in the world that president Xi Jinping presented to a meeting of its political and military leadership in 2014:
The display of self-confidence bordered on hubris. Xi began by offering an essentially Hegelian conception of the major historical trends toward multi-polarity (i.e. not U.S. uni-polarity) and the transformation of the international system (i.e. not the current U.S.-led system). In his words, a rejuvenated Chinese nation will build a “new type of international relations” through a “protracted” struggle over the nature of the international order. In the end, he assured his audience that “the growing trend toward a multipolar world will not change.”
The nerve of those guys!
Obama is preparing to give a farewell address in Chicago on January 10. Here’s hoping the explainer-in-chief leads with foreign affairs. As good an overall job as he has done in the the past eight years, he still has a lot of explaining to do.