At the meeting last week in Hamburg, the G20 turned into the G19+1. The “one” is not Russia, as one would expect, but the United States. The biggest economy in this global club, which was created to counter protectionist instincts, now openly proclaims a protectionist course. At the summit, it was ready to compromise only on minor corrections in the wording of the final declaration. China and Germany, two major targets of U.S. mistrust, reiterated their support for an open global economy. Russia supported the rest of the 19, both in trade and on climate issues, while being unusually constructive vis-à-vis the global agenda.
Many Russian commentators have argued that the Hamburg summit marked a watershed moment in global development, when previous divides lost their relevance. Instead of emerging (or re-emerging in the case of Russia) versus developed economies, we are witnessing a growing split between “globalists” and “nationalists” — with some of the weaker globalists tensely watching trends at home, prepared to change sides if the more nationalistic approach prevails. And such trends could well prevail because, even isolated, the U.S. can still set the tone for many on the global stage. Whatever the experts might warn about avoiding trade wars, if somebody starts it, others will have to respond.
Russian perceptions of U.S. President Donald Trump have gone through several stages. Initially, there was a sense of euphoria generated by his positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign and in the wake of his fully unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton, whose statements on Russia and Putin left little space for positive expectations. Trump’s fixation on “deals” inspired some hope in Moscow as well, since pragmatism has always been proclaimed in Russia as the right and sober way to conduct inter-state affairs, contrary to the Western “value-based” approach. The Kremlin has always been committed to traditional geopolitical thinking, believing in a balance of power and reliance on hard power. For that reason, some say it is obsolete and cynical in its ways.
Post-Soviet Russia was so focused on its own affairs and the need to overcome severe internal crisis — not least the implications of the collapse of its international status — that any concern with the common global good simply disappeared from the political imagination. An encompassing sense of the unfair treatment of Russia after the end of the Cold War added to the murky perception of international politics as a jungle-style zero-sum game.
Everything is relative. Compared to the overtly mercantilist approach that Trump is not even trying to hide, Russia’s old-fashioned realism seems almost romantic. Even hardcore realists believe in rules, although generated by a power balance and not just by negotiated agreements. Mercantilists are much more flexible — profit is the endgame. That’s it. “Buy American” seems to be not only Trump’s domestic but also his international message — to allies above all. The rest, including big political initiatives and even use of military force, seem for him to serve only as means to achieve commercial ends.
If Russia (and other countries) want to get Trump’s America right, it must not try to define it through moribund terms of the Cold War or post-Cold War world. Any American president who sees Germany primarily as an economic competitor and disregards the geopolitical or ideological dimensions is openly departing from the 20th century framework.
Russians misunderstood Trump’s rhetoric when he spoke about deals. We didn’t realize he meant deals in the literal sense of those that bring economic gain, not geopolitical compromise. Others misunderstood as well, but not all. The Gulf states got it right — the more contracts with America agreed by Saudi Arabia, for example, the stronger the commitments from the U.S.
Poles understood as well — they agreed to buy Patriot missiles and enthusiastically supported the idea of replacing Russian gas with American liquefied natural gas, at whatever the cost. Polish President Andrzej Duda went even further and offered Poland as a hub to dispatch U.S. gas to the whole of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. Maybe this is a reason why the Trump administration has turned its attention to Ukraine and recently started to demonstrate much more interest than before.
Trump has also transformed the trans-Atlantic ties of NATO. The Article 5 obligation for America to come to defense of any member seems no longer to be a value-based and solidarity-driven arrangement but a mere service delivered by the U.S. to its distinguished clients. And for this service, America should be paid not only by increased European defense spending but by customer loyalty as well.
Russia is confused by such an approach and is trying to figure out how to cope. Others are embarrassed too. The temptation is to ascribe this change to the peculiar characteristics of one U.S. president. Trump’s personality does indeed play a role. But looking back, it is difficult not to notice a longer trend of American disengagement from previous relationships and alliances. We’ve seen this starting from George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, with their ideas about a “coalition of the willing” and an “old” and “new” Europe, to Barack Obama’s modest interest in European affairs combined with his pivot to Asia. Trump is just taking it to the next level.
After the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia strove to restore its statehood, its economic and political system, and its international stature. Russia felt defeated and wished to make up for its Cold War losses; the West, led by the U.S., was engulfed in euphoria and self-admiration.
But between 2008 and 2016 — from the world financial crisis to Brexit and Trump’s election, the West’s delight gradually gave way to anxiety. Eventually, it became clear that things had not gone the way they were intended to go at the end of the last century.
The Hamburg summit marks the turning point from the past to the future. The contest to shape that future is the order of the day. In that contest, by its own choice, the U.S. will not only be one among many but, if it continues its present course, one against many, as was the case at the G20 summit.