The United States as a Republic of Curved Mirrors: What is Russia to Do?
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Dmitry V. Suslov

Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Valdai Discussion Club

The morbid situation involving a political and information war that developed in the United States this winter, where the traditional establishment seeks to weaken or completely remove the incumbent president from office, portraying Trump and his retinue as Russian puppets and traitors, continues to worsen. For several months now, Washington has been a kind of a «republic of curved mirrors» (by analogy with the famous Soviet fairy tale) where reality is represented as its exact opposite. The actual foreign policy successes of the incumbent president are distorted and presented as yet another setback. Any step, even if it objectively strengthens the US position, is portrayed by the mainstream media as an absurd, erroneous and counterproductive. Moreover, real foreign policy has become a thing of secondary importance. The news revolve around progress in investigating Trump’s «ties» with Moscow and speculation on whether he has committed another unacceptable act involving Russia, either because of his incompetence or evil intent.

The gaping difference between the actual outcome of Donald Trump’s first foreign visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, NATO summit in Brussels and the G7 meeting in Italy, and the way it was presented by the mainstream media and how the US president was met at home, are a case in point.

The actual results include major advances in promoting the US political and economic interests, strengthening its positions in the Middle East and securing, albeit in a formal manner, solidarity of the European NATO countries with American interests and priorities. If we forget for a minute the factor of Trump himself and focus on actions, rather than the form, we cannot help but agree that, from the perspective of foreign policy, the past month was very successful for his administration.

First, it has completely restored the US’s partnership with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which was undermined during Obama’s presidency, and tangibly stepped up the policy of containing Iran without actually abandoning the 2015 agreement on Iranian nuclear programme. This in itself is a great success. In exchange for Washington’s strengthening its anti-Iranian approach, Saudi Arabia concluded military contracts with the US for a whopping $350 billion payment over 10 years, a portion of which is payable immediately, and generally sweetened the deal with promises to make massive investments in the US economy. Even if only a small portion of this deal is realized, it will be difficult to overestimate its importance for the United States.

At the same time, Washington’s creation of a symbolic coalition of Sunni states opposing Iran, a process which began in Riyadh, can hardly be viewed as giving ground to Saudi Arabia or performing a drastic turnaround on US policy from Obama’s watch. Rather, it is about rational promotion of American interests in a situation where the nuclear deal of 2015 strengthened Iran, but failed to make it less anti-American or anti-Israeli. The goal of the Obama administration was precisely to resolve the Iranian nuclear programme issue and thus prevent a possible war with the US involvement, rather than to make Tehran more friendly toward the US. This goal was effectively achieved. In this regard, the fact that the United States is now trying to minimize the implications of this deal for itself and its allies, without destroying it and thereby not increasing the odds of an Iran-US war, is quite reasonable and justified.

Second, by starting off their presidential foreign trips with a visit to Saudi Arabia and a meeting with the leaders of a number of Muslim Sunni countries, the White House thus shrugged off accusations of Islamophobia that surfaced in the wake of Trump’s election rhetoric and his attempts, in January, to restrict the entry of citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries to the United States. The image of America and the new administration in the Muslim world, at least among the majority of the ruling elites, has improved.

Third, having met with the Pope, Trump showed himself as a supporter of conservative values ??and strengthened the moral authority of the United States and his administration, which is particularly important amid reproaches that it neglects issues related to values in its foreign policy.

Fourth, having achieved formal NATO participation in the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Washington secured the symbolic support of the alliance in its war effort in the Middle East and thereby reinforced the need for this organization in the eyes of American voters. At the same time, Washington created the prerequisites for its European allies to become more actively involved in resolving conflicts and parrying threats in their periphery, of course, under the leadership of the United States and in accordance with its agenda. The new promise to increase defence spending, literally extorted by the US president from his European allies, is beneficial for the alliance and US interests. The growth of defence spending by the European NATO countries is all about, first of all, an increased demand for the US-made military products, as well as the possibility, in the long run, for more effective involvement of the Europeans in US missions and, accordingly, for more targeted use of US military resources.

At the same time, the White House has played a masterful gambit with China and North Korea. By combining a constructive dialogue with Beijing with tough pressure on it, and throwing in gestures such as missile strikes in Syria during Trump’s dinner with Xi, and aircraft carrier manoeuvres off the Korean shores, the United States forced China to introduce major economic sanctions against North Korea for the first time ever without even giving anything in return. Taking advantage of a sharp dive in China-North Korea relations, the White House immediately announced its willingness to start a direct dialogue with Pyongyang and said it was ready to recognize North Korea’s political regime in exchange for it abandoning its nuclear program and going nuclear-free. As a result, China’s role and influence in resolving the North Korean issue have drastically weakened. So, Washington has substantially improved its alliance with Japan, opened the door to a direct dialogue with North Korea, and, by doing so, not only kept its relations with China from slipping into an uncontrolled confrontation, but, on the contrary, made Beijing think that these relations have «normalized,» that is, that the partnership will stay there, albeit a mixed one.

The US media and the traditional establishment provided a fundamentally different picture, however. Covering the Middle East tour, they focused primarily on Trump’s violation of tradition, whereby his first visits should have been to allied countries that share cultural and other values, such as Canada or Great Britain, and the way he looked performing a dance with sabres. Following the NATO summit, the main emphasis has not been on the US president mentioning Article 5 of the Washington Treaty during his speech at the opening of the September 11 Memorial, but on the rude demand that the Europeans spend more on their defense. Both are presented as a blow to transatlantic relations and weakening of the US position in the world in general.

Moreover, the news coverage during his tour focused not on foreign policy, but on new scandals in the wake of the media spinning Trump and his retinue’s connections with Moscow during the campaign. With his son-in-law and one of his closest advisors Jared Kushner in the crosshairs, the noose around Trump is tightening. That the president could leave office in the long run [before his term is up] seems to be an increasingly realistic scenario. No matter what his administration does, investigating his «ties» with Russia will remain the main political issue in the United States for the entire duration of his presidency.

Even though the traditional US establishment had to recognize Trump as president, it hasn’t come to grips with the reality. The traditional elite is not willing to admit its defeat in the 2016 campaign and learn from it. It is not willing to admit that it lost because the proposed development paradigm of the country, including foreign policy, does not meet the aspirations of a significant portion of the American voters, whose life has not become any better or safer as part of this paradigm. Instead, it insists that it would have certainly won if it were not for Russia’s «intervention» and the alleged «collusion» with Trump’s entourage which «stole» its victory. Accordingly, the establishment portrays Trump’s presidency and all his foreign policy steps as a purely temporary and unfortunate misunderstanding, all of which will soon go away like a bad dream.

This greatly limits the reach of the administration’s foreign policy and makes even its correct, from the standpoint of US interests, steps strategically meaningless. Its partners simply don’t understand whether it can be taken seriously and whether it’s still a reliable negotiations partner. Won’t agreements with Trump be swept away the moment he leaves the White House as something unworthy of the United States just because they have his name on them?

In the case of Russia, which is used precisely as a tool to delegitimize the incumbent president and is portrayed by the establishment as the embodiment of the universal evil that is set to weaken America from within, this situation totally precludes the possibility of any progress or any chances for overcoming the current confrontation. An ironic «strange zugzwang» has formed. Both sides understand that it is in their interests to overcome confrontation and establish selective cooperation where it is objectively useful from the point of view of their interests and is even necessary in modern realities (Syria, arms control, etc.). But they cannot afford doing so because any step toward improving relations or even limited cooperation will give rise to a new volley of accusations against the Trump administration and aggravate its already fragile situation.

The only thing the White House can do without risking early impeachment or that Trump steps down voluntarily is to ratchet up confrontation with Moscow. However, this runs counter to its foreign policy designs, at least for the time being. Given the circumstances, Russia cannot afford to make any steps with regard to the United States, as both constructive initiatives and confrontational actions will be harmful. The former will be used by the US establishment as evidence of «collusion» with the Trump administration and treachery on the part of the latter, even if these initiatives will objectively meet the interests of the United States. The latter, which do not meet the interests of the Russian Federation and its desire to overcome confrontation with America, will be portrayed as evidence of Russia’s hostility.

Moreover, the actions of the traditional elite of the United States and its prevailing sentiment indicate that after Trump goes, a sharp turn in the direction of US policy is likely greater ideologization, messianism and interventionism, as well as greater deterrence of Russia, including across the post-Soviet space. It is precisely these elements of the current administration’s foreign policy approach which have already taken the edge off of some of the contradictions in Russia-US relations, allowing Moscow not to see the administration as a systemic anti-Russian player and an existential threat and also allowing the Kremlin to maintain moderate optimism regarding the possibility of overcoming confrontation, which causes rejection on behalf of the US establishment. First, this includes the successive attempts of the White House to reduce the degree of ideologization of US policy and focus on interests, rather than values; second, its focus on advancing US interests in their narrow realistic understanding in its relations with all its partners; and, third, a clear idea of the hierarchy of interests and threats and prioritizing tasks.

The traditional elite of the United States is getting ready to strike back, to cancel Trump-related trends and to return to the foreign policy that has been conducted during the past 30 years. This will unavoidably lead to a new escalation of confrontation with Russia. Once the tables turn, the traditional American elite will again begin to position the political regime in Russia as the prime cause of the aspects of the Russian politics that are unacceptable for the United States and to insist on transforming it as a prerequisite for improving relations. It will return to the policy of toppling regimes (primarily in Syria, but possibly in other countries as well), step up its support of Ukraine and, perhaps, will provoke «color revolutions» in countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Belarus or Armenia. Russia-US relations will be thrown back to a state in which they would have found themselves in early 2017, if Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election in the United States, or into an even more bitter confrontation.

What does this mean for Russia and its policy toward the United States in the short and medium term?

First, since the chances for establishing cooperation with the Trump administration are extremely slim, and, after it goes, Russia-US relations are likely to take a dive, Moscow’s top priority should include promoting its national interests in others countries and regions, such as China, Asia and Asia-Pacific, Eurasia, the Middle East and Europe rather than promoting its relations with the United States. The course on strategic partnership with China, the BRICS countries in general and creating the «Greater Eurasia» needs to be continued.

Second, it is imperative to start preparing for Russia-US confrontation to exacerbate after Trump is gone. This means both the continuation of military modernization, including strategic nuclear forces, and the strengthening of relations with other centers of power.

Third, in its relations with the United States, Russia should focus on preventing its loss of control over confrontation (confidence-building measures, various hotlines and rules of conduct in the military sphere, including cyberspace) and limited cooperation, preferably multilateral, where necessary and appropriate, and based on Russia’s interests. «Small-step» cooperation in Syria, Afghanistan and in the sphere of arms control is the most promising and feasible approach given the current circumstances.

Fourth, even though the current foreign policy thinking of the Trump administration is unlikely to last long, it needs to be understood and used to the full extent, again, to promote Russia’s interests in other countries and regions of the world that are important to it, such as Europe, Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East. There are ways to do this.

It is important for the White House that its relations with any and all its partners bring tangible, preferably, financial, benefits, or, at least, create an impression of doing so, and portray Trump as a «winner» and an effective «dealmaker.» That is why his first visit was to Saudi Arabia, where such benefits abound, and the last one to the G7 summit, where they do not exist, or are very doubtful. Hence, the desire to make European NATO countries spend more on defense, which in many ways will represent investment in the US military-industrial complex. This approach, dubbed America First, indeed, entails changes in Transatlantic relations, which Chancellor Merkel pointed out shortly after the G-7 summit: the US support has stopped being unconditional and absolute. It is important for Washington to promote its own interests, and it wants Europeans to assist it in that endeavor. From Russia’s perspective, the current more utilitarian approach on behalf of the United States to its allies is an opportunity to help it diversify its relations and, in particular, to intensify its dialogue with key EU countries without compromising its own interests. Henceforth, Russia’s policy toward European countries should be more flexible and proactive, and the meeting between Putin with Macron soon after the G7 summit is a move in the right direction. With Japan, this process is already underway.

NATO’s Brussels summit has clearly shown that active involvement of the alliance in fighting terrorism is more important for the current administration than the military-political deterrence of Russia. The latter is still in the cards, but the priorities are now strikingly different from previous NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw. This offers Russia an opportunity to invite NATO to return to cooperation in fighting terrorism, and to build more active cooperation in this area with individual European countries, thereby gradually reducing Russian-Western confrontation despite the stagnation of the situation in Ukraine.

Washington’s plan to rein in Iran reinforces the latter’s dependence on Russia, and creates prerequisites for Russian-European and Russian-Chinese consultations on Iran. Stronger influence of the United States on Saudi Arabia, and Russia on Iran is, in fact, good for settling the Syrian conflict, and does not delay it.

Finally, the United States’ resolving to cut back on ideology in its foreign policy makes it possible to let the Europeans know, again and again, that the era of the «end of history» is long gone, and that they also need to adapt to the new environment of a polycentric world and ideological diversity, and focus on the policy of pragmatism. This is a long-term foundation for overcoming the current Russian-European strategic deadlock.

Valdai Discussion Club