Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
Resume: Obama started dismantling America’s global obligations. Trump is likely to take that a step further.
Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election has thrown many Americans into a state of stupor. Russia, on the contrary, appears to be in exuberant spirits. This is understandable if one recalls that during the race, the Democrats kept saying that Trump’s victory would be Putin’s victory.
But it’s more complicated if one thinks beyond bilateral relations, which have repeatedly been going up and down, to the global context. In fact, Trump’s success signifies the end of an important era in the world and ushers in a new one.
The decline of liberal globalization, which was exacerbated by the financial crisis in 2008, was out of tune with the course of global politics. The U.S. and European countries’ increasingly egotistic and protectionist policies have been masked by reinvigorated rhetoric characteristic of the liberal world order, particularly from President Obama. The 44th president of the U.S., who won the election of 2008 amid a severe credit crunch, was much more aware than anyone else in his country that the world was changing dramatically and that America could no longer do things the way it had done before. It was gradually losing its dominance after clear overstretch in the 1990s and 2000s and needed a new tack.
Obama steered clear of excessive risks; he understood that America had to focus on domestic issues and that it could not solve all the world’s problems. But he either did not want to say this publicly or could not. To make amends for his restraint, he chose to reinforce rhetoric about America’s global duties, eventually disappointing everyone around him, both his ardent supporters and opponents. But, most importantly, people around the world began to feel that America did not know what exactly it wanted and wondered whether they could rely on it any more. Essentially, Obama started dismantling his country’s global obligations while publicly saying otherwise.
Trump did not really invent anything new. Much of what he said about foreign policy during the campaign had been said many times before him, including at the top level. When he said that Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which concerns collective defense, had a price and that only those who paid diligently could count on protection, it was treated as a scandal. And yet, virtually the same, albeit in a somewhat milder form, had been said before — by President Obama earlier this year and by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates five years ago. As Gates put it, “If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders ? those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me ? may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
Trump says openly what Obama never dared to say: the U.S. is going to focus on its own interests and does not want to bear the burden of being the world’s guardian anymore. But this does not mean isolationism, because these interests reach far. Besides, judging from Trump’s statements, strength and respect are very important to him, and so the use of force cannot be ruled out. But the main difference from the previous administration is that the ideological promotion of democracy and a certain model of development, which provided the conceptual and axiological justification for America’s global presence, is being rolled back.
For all their antagonism, the Clinton-Bush eras made up one period ? the emergence and triumph of the U.S. as the only global policeman who could intervene in world affairs when necessary. The Obama-Trump era, no matter how long or short it is going to be, will return the country to more moderate positions on what concerns its national interests, and will bring its policy and rhetoric into line with economic trends.
Russia’s reaction to Trump’s election is unprecedentedly positive. But there should be no illusion — Trump won’t entertain any affection for Russia. As a pragmatist, he will shift the blame for all problems to his predecessor and try to garner Russia’s support for his new U.S. policy on the world stage. China may be his number one concern, and he may ask Russia to “step away” from Beijing, promising some reward in exchange. This is precisely what Russia must not do, for the non-Western world generally views it as a partner who will eagerly push other countries away from the U.S. embrace. True, this reputation has been replaced by a more respectable image lately, but it can be ruined easily.
“The Russian threat” played an unprecedented role in the presidential election campaign in America and was used by the Democrats as a battering ram against Trump. However, it turned out that most voters did not get scared and were barely interested in this topic. All speculation that Trump is pro-Kremlin will most likely die away. There is no doubt that Putin is interested in him as a strong leader, and both strongly reject “political correctness.” And yet, no one can say what policy the Trump administration will pursue toward Russia. Of course Moscow likes the president-elect’s position that America should not intervene everywhere or force its views on others. But Trump’s plan to build up the military and use force to make others respect America raises questions. His anti-Chinese and anti-Iranian stance is clearly at odds with Moscow’s current priorities, even though Trump will most likely try to patch up relations with Russia in order to contain China.
Relations may warm up soon enough after Trump’s inauguration, for they really have taken a steep dive during the end of Obama’s term. Yet, in general, Russia-U.S. relations have not seen any major progress since the middle of the 20th century; they have swung back and forth with varying amplitude.
Russia also has reason to welcome Trump’s election because the U.S.-centric world, where Moscow has failed to find a fair place, is coming to an end. Russia could not take the niche it was assigned as part of “Greater Europe;” it simply was not fit for it. Russia was not strong enough to make the grade as an opponent of the U.S., nor could it accept a subordinate role. Failure to fit itself into any of the proposed formats and the inability to create its own helped precipitate a deep crisis in the mid-2010s. If Trump tames America’s foreign policy ambitions, Russia will get what it wanted — a more multivariate international system where Russia will not play by rules it didn’t help make.
Russia sought to raise its profile in the international system, and now the opportunity to do that seems to be coming its way, primarily in the Middle East and Europe. But how much does Russia really need that?
The Middle East fire will keep growing regardless of what external players do. Getting deeply involved there and assuming responsibility will entail big risks. But the greatest temptation comes from Europe — the eternal source of Russia’s inspiration and complexes. The European Union system is decaying, and Russia may want to regain some of its lost positions. The general trend is quite favorable at the moment, as politicians advocating closer relations with Russia won presidential elections in Moldova and Bulgaria last weekend. But Russian history shows that every time Russia got seriously engaged in European affairs in the hope of becoming a master of destinies on the continent, it always ended up fighting wars, overstraining itself and sustaining losses.
The events of the last few years prodded Russia into diversifying its policies, turning towards Asia and shedding its two-century-long painful obsession with the West.
Russia welcomes the return of pragmatism to international relations and the retreat of liberal ideology. But the realpolitik that Trump is inclined to exercise will mean a fierce and uncompromising struggle; and Russia has more modest resources than heavyweights America and China, primarily economically, where competition has become increasingly tough. The question is whether Russia is overestimating its strength.