Trump and Russia
President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC),
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004)
Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States. How could this happen? Politicians, experts, journalists will long be debating this question. But no matter how analysts assess this event, they all agree that American society and the US political system are experiencing serious, even fundamental shifts. The presidential election held in November, 2016 became the starting point of a new era in the American political and public life development.
Such a major shift was bound to happen sooner or later. Stagnation cannot go on forever; Russia learned this lesson first hand. The old socio-political system that has existed virtually unchanged in the United States for decades is no longer compatible with the new reality that has developed both in the United States and in the world as a whole. The electoral campaign turned into a fierce battle between those who wanted to preserve the status quo no matter what, and those who made destroying the status quo their goal. The American people opted for change in domestic and foreign policies, sometimes without realizing the exact nature of those changes.
What will be achieved during Trump's presidency? Hardly anyone is ready to give a certain answer to this question. Judging by the President-elect's statements, it appears that in the coming years, we will witness out-of-the-box decisions, some of which may be a success, while others may be quite the opposite. This applies both to domestic politics and economic development in the United States, as well as to the country's foreign policy.
Speaking of the long-term foreign policy implications of the Trump "revolution," it is likely that Washington will be forced to take a fresh look at the role the United States plays in global affairs, the parameters of the country's leadership, and the idea of American exceptionalism as such. The process of "perestroika" induced by the new global balance of power is unlikely to be quick and easy, and will probably stretch far beyond Trump's presidency. But, as Mikhail Gorbachev's favourite phrase goes, "the process has started," and it will not only affect the United States, but also the global situation as a whole.
Russia, of course, is mostly interested in the way changes in the United States will affect relations between the two countries. Contrary to common sense, Russia all but became the primary focus of the presidential campaign. The Democrats followed the Cold War stereotypes and attempted to demonize Russia, while Donald Trump, on the other hand, spoke about his willingness to actively cooperate with Russia on a wide range of issues. Only time will tell whether he truly thought so, or whether he was just trying to distance himself and is party from the Democrats. In any case, the Washington hawks failed in their attempts to play the "Russian card." Voting for Trump the American people showed that they were tired of anti-Russian propaganda and were less and less inclined to see Russia as a source of "evil" threatening the interests of their country.
When we think about the future of Russia–United States relations, we would first need to explain the failure of the "reset" policy announced by Barack Obama during his first presidential term. Both countries pinned significant hopes on this "reset" policy. Eight years ago, many people believed that all the conditions for the "reset" to succeed were there. Indeed, much has been done in terms of cooperation in various spheres, including security. Suffice it to mention the signing in April 2010 of the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (the new START treaty) by presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama. Nevertheless, the Obama administration leaves the White House with relations between Russia and the United States at their lowest point since the long since forgotten times of the Cold War.
We can talk about certain mistakes and miscalculations made by both parties, unreasonably high expectations, and bureaucratic inertia here. All of that is true, but I believe that the "reset" policy's historical failure occurred due to deeper, systemic reasons. Since the latest detente in relations between Russia and the United States, both parties have focused on resolving important, yet quite specific issues, without paying proper attention to developing and articulating new basic bilateral relations principles that would reflect the strategic interests of both countries. As a result, stand-alone achievements failed to take US–Russia relations to a qualitatively new level and create the necessary margin of safety. This is why the "reset" failed the test of the latest international crises – most notably the crisis in Ukraine.
Hence the principal lesson for the future: when resolving important issues with the new US administration, Russia should initiate a serious dialogue with regard to the strategic interests of the two countries, yet considering both the existing potential and the objective limits for bilateral cooperation. During my tenure as the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, we tried to engage in such work with the George W. Bush administration, but as the United States was not ready for it, we did not achieve any viable results. However, this does not cross out the crucial importance of this task.
What questions should be made a priority? The main question that both parties have to answer – both to each other and to themselves is: "Are Russia and the United States irreconcilable enemies in the world today? Or, given all their possible differences, could they still be partners?" If the two countries are bound to be enemies, then our key task is to work out and agree on "rules of the game" that would minimize the risks of a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States in the event of a conflict, for such a confrontation would threaten international security. We could turn to the experience of the Cold War, when Moscow and Washington knew very well where the "red line" was located.
If Russia and the United States are prepared to work together as partners, in the interests of advancing stability, security, and jointly respond to global challenges, then we need to construct effective forms of dialogue at all levels – from the very top down to specific agencies and civil society – so that the relations between the two countries can be open and predictable. Thus, should any differences arise, which is natural for U.S.–Russia relations, we are able to overcome them with mutual respect, without allowing the situation to escalate into a major crisis.
Creating a multi-layered architecture of bilateral relations in this way would make these relations more stable and create opportunities for a constructive dialogue on key global issues today, which cannot be resolved without the active participation of both Russia and the United States. There is a significant pile of such issues: what the future world order should look like; how to restore manageability of international affairs; how to fight terrorism and the threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation; what to do about the increasing number of regional conflicts; etc. Being permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and the United States bear special responsibility for these problems' resolution, and they have a lot of potential to do just that.
Clearly, even the most productive relations between Russia and the United States are not able to solve all the global issues. Under no circumstances will today's international relations return to the bipolar model of the second half of the 20th century. Yet even limited success in this area would undoubtedly have a great positive impact on the overall situation in the world.